Brain Exercise

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Volume 13, Number 1

The ability to remember is one of the most critical functions of the brain. Memory is commonly taken for granted when one’s brain is working well, but memory impairment can cause profound disruptions in basic life activities. This is why traumatic brain injuries, strokes, dementia, or other brain diseases can be devastating.

While many adults do not implement strategies to develop brain function when the brain is healthy, some persons do crossword puzzles or other “mind” games for brain exercise. This may be motivated by the “use it or lose it” axiom, in which the goal is more about preserving memory than to improve memory function.

Jeffrey Karpicke, PhD, of Purdue University, observes that memories are commonly viewed as objects in the vast storehouse of the mind. The task of finding a memory “object” in this storehouse is known as retrieval. Therefore, retrieval is understood to be a process whose purpose is to access memory, rather than an activity involved in the production of memory.

Karpicke’s research, however, has shown that “practicing retrieval” may be a critical process for durable learning and the production of memory, and even more effective than learning strategies that are currently most prevalent. One research protocol he has used involved assigning participants to one of four conditions to learn words from another language along with their English translations: 1) study words one time; 2) practice until all the words can be recalled once; 3) practice until each word can be retrieved three times in a row; and 4) spacing retrieval practice such that non-related activity is done between retrieval practice. The “spaced retrieval practice” clearly produced the most impressive learning results.

A very common study strategy employed by students is to repetitively review notes or reread material. Many students will also quiz themselves by trying to retrieve the material, but this is typically viewed as a test, not a learning strategy itself. Karpicke’s research has demonstrated that “spaced retrieval practice” is actually a superior strategy for embedding material in memory. Spaced retrieval practice even outperforms concept mapping, a learning strategy in which pathways of how information is related to other information are actually diagrammed. Concept mapping has been shown to produce more meaningful learning than does rote practice, but spaced retrieval practice has been found to also produce meaningful learning along with superior memory results. Furthermore, these strategies can be combined when concept maps are created as a retrieval practice task.

Spaced retrieval practice can be used as a brain exercise. The first step is to study some material and then do a self-test to try to retrieve the material. Correct any mistakes/errors. Then do something else unrelated to the material being learned. Next, do another self-test, again correcting any errors. Repeat this process at least three times.

Continuing to learn may be the most important way to exercise one’s brain. “Spaced retrieval practice” is a simple, yet very effective exercise that has been shown to produce durable learning and contribute to the enhancement of memory function.



Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor of Family Medicine and Director of Behavioral Science for the Family Medicine Residency Program, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. His clinical practice includes psychotherapy, consultation, and coaching.




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