How to Remember What You Hear – A Simple, Research-Based Tip

by Jeff Cobb

Word Relax on beach

Do you ever get frustrated because you listen to a story, presentation, or lecture, but later – sometimes as little as a few hours later – can recall little to nothing about it?

Call it self awareness – or, perhaps more accurately, call it aging – but for whatever reason I have become increasingly conscious of the fact that I forget a tremendous amount of what I hear, even when I am listening with the intent of learning. As a result, I’ve been looking for solid, research-based tips on how to remember what you hear.

One approach that seems both highly promising and very easy to put into action is simply to rest for 10 minutes after listening to new information rather than immediately beginning a new activity.

A study published in Psychological Science in 2012 provides evidence that this approach works. As part of the study, researchers ran two experiments. In the first, a group of normally aging elderly adults were were read two brief stories with instruction to try to remember as much about the stories as possible for later recall. 

Following each story, some participants were asked to “rest quietly with their eyes closed in the darkened testing room for 10 minutes.” Other participants – in a different room – played a “spot-the-difference” game during the 10-minute break. 

You can probably guess how this plays out.

When all of the participants were tested on the recall of the story, those who had rested rather than playing the game were able to remember significantly more. That test occurred roughly 30 minutes after the first story was read, but the results held up seven days later when participants were tested again. While the recall of both groups dropped some over this time period, those who had rested after hearing the stories still remembered significantly more than those who played the game.

To determine whether the initial test following the stories had somehow enhanced the long-term memory of the group that rested, the researchers ran a second experiment in which testing occurred only after seven days. Once again, the group that rested performed significantly better. Indeed, the group’s performance on the test was not much lower than when an earlier test had been administered – suggesting that it was mostly the rest period and not the earlier testing that resulted in enhanced memory.

Based on the results of these experiments, there researchers propose that wakeful resting after new learning allows new memory traces to be consolidated better and hence to be retained for much longer.” In other words, resting for a bit after learning gives the learning some time to “stick.”

So, while there is still plenty of research to be done in this area, it appears to be well worth building some rest time into your learning activities. If you are going to attend a lecture or presentation, listen to a podcast, participate in a Webinar, etc. allow 10-minutes of wakeful resting afterwards to help you memory consolidate the new information you brain has been exposed to.


P.S. – And don’t forget that non-wakeful resting – aka, sleep – has a powerful impact on learning as well.

posted on August 26, 2014

Other Mission to Learn Offerings

Thanks so much for reading the Mission to Learn blog. If you aren't already aware of them, we also encourage you to check out:

Also, we are always eager to hear from you about things you would like to see on Mission to Learn. Please contact us with any ideas or news you have, or find out about writing for Mission to Learn.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Maureen December 1, 2014 at 5:49 am

You can also improve your memory power through meditation in the early hours. Meditation will definitely help you bounce back!

Jeff Cobb December 1, 2014 at 8:56 am

Maureen – Definitely. We’re big fans of meditation here on Mission to Learn. See, for example: (not about memory, but another way in which meditation can be powerful). Thanks for commenting. – Jeff

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: