Want to learn a new skill? Take short breaks: Study

Want to learn a new skill? Take short breaks: Study

Resting, early and often, may be critical to learning as practice. (Photo: Getty Images/Thinkstock) Taking short breaks, early an

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resting, brain function
Resting, early and often, may be critical to learning as practice. (Photo: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

Taking short breaks, early and often, may help our brains learn new skills, according to a study. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health in the US found that our brains may solidify the memories of new skills we practiced a few seconds earlier by taking a short rest. The results, published in the journal Current Biology, highlight the critically important role rest may play in learning.

“Everyone thinks you need to ‘practice, practice, practice’ when learning something new. Instead, we found that resting, early and often, may be just as critical to learning as practice,” said Leonardo G Cohen, senior investigator at NIH.

“Our ultimate hope is that the results of our experiments will help patients recover from the paralysing effects caused by strokes and other neurological injuries by informing the strategies they use to ‘relearn’ lost skills,” Cohen said in a statement.

Marlene Bonstrup, a postdoctoral fellow in Cohen’s lab, looked at brain waves recorded from healthy volunteers in learning and memory experiments. The waves were recorded from right-handed volunteers with a highly sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography. The subjects sat in a chair facing a computer screen and under a long cone-shaped brain scanning cap.

The experiment began when they were shown a series of numbers on a screen and asked to type the numbers as many times as possible with their left hands for 10 seconds. They were asked to take a 10 second break and then repeat this trial cycle of alternating practice and rest 35 more times. This strategy is typically used to reduce any complications that could arise from fatigue or other factors. The volunteers’ speed at which they correctly typed the numbers improved dramatically during the first few trials and then levelled off around the 11th cycle.

“I noticed that participants’ brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions,” said Bonstrup.

By reanalysing the data, she and her colleagues found that the volunteers’ performance improved primarily during the short rests, and not during typing. They found that improvements made during the rest periods added up to the overall gains the volunteers made that day. Moreover, these gains were much greater than the ones seen after the volunteers returned the next day to try again, suggesting that the early breaks played as critical a role in learning as the practicing itself.

By looking at the brain waves, Bonstrup found activity patterns that suggested the volunteers’ brains were consolidating, or solidifying, memories during the rest periods. They found that the changes in the size of brain waves, called beta rhythms, correlated with the improvements the volunteers made during the rests. Further analysis suggested that the changes in beta oscillations primarily happened in the right hemispheres of the volunteers’ brains and along neural networks connecting the frontal and parietal lobes that are known to help control the planning of movements. These changes only happened during the breaks and were the only brain wave patterns that correlated with performance.

“Our results suggest that it may be important to optimise the timing and configuration of rest intervals when implementing rehabilitative treatments in stroke patients or when learning to play the piano in normal volunteers,” said Cohen.

“Whether these results apply to other forms of learning and memory formation remains an open question,” he said.

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