In fact, it might just make things worse – or so say the authors of a new study out of McMaster University. Whether you’re trying to perfect a yoga pose or retrieve a word that’s on the tip of your tongue, the act of doing it over and over again may actually reinforce the incorrect pattern of activity and cause you to actually learn the mistake. Which is probably not the effect you were going for.
In the study, the researchers tested students to see if they could retrieve words when given a definition. The students then had to say whether they knew they answer or not, or if the word was on the tip of their tongue. If the student almost-but-not-quite knew the word, they were given either 10 or 30 seconds to try to remember it before being given the definition. Two days later, the students were retested on the same words. Those who had been given more time to recall the word tended to struggle over the same words again. The researchers concluded this was because spending more time struggling appeared to reinforce the brain pattern causing the error.
"If you can find out what the word is as soon as possible—by looking it up, or asking someone—you should actually say it to yourself,” said researcher Karin Humphreys in a press release. “It doesn’t need to be out loud, but you should at least say it to yourself. By laying down another procedural memory you can help ameliorate the effects of the error. However, what the research shows is that if you just can’t figure it out, stop trying: you’re just digging yourself in deeper."