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Rats, replay, and reflection

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology bolsters the importance of reflection to learning and retaining what you learn—at least, it does if you're a rat, according to this article in the Boston Globe. The researchers found that rats that are allowed some time to do an "instant replay," from the end of the task through the middle to the beginning, were better at learning what they just went through.

    'What this suggests is that, while there certainly is some record of your experience as it's occurring, that the actual learning -- when you try to figure out what was important, what should I keep and throw away -- that could happen after the fact, during periods of quiet, wakeful introspection," said Matthew A. Wilson, the paper's senior author. It is not clear whether the replay is conscious or unconscious, he said.

The article goes on to say that the rats also replayed their experience, in forward motion, this time, while sleeping. But if you let them do what they naturally would do after running a track (hang out, chew on a hairball, whatever), they're learning skills improve.

    So is there an immediate lesson for humans?

    ''We have this tendency to kind of force ourselves, push ourselves," Wilson said. ''To constantly go, and that gets reflected in the way we do our science. We want animals to perform, we want to perform. Just sitting back and allowing them to do nothing, it's hard to do that because you tend to think you're wasting time and energy." But what made this experiment work, he said, was ''letting the animals do what they naturally do."

Medical Meetings' editor Tamar Hosansky wrote a great editorial on just this idea, Make Reflection Your Resolution, which suggests not only to build in reflection time for attendees, but for yourself, too. It's great advice.

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