Take short breaks to make learning a new skill easier

You don’t have to power through when learning something new, research says. Taking brief breaks might actually help absorb that skill better into your brain.

The previously held idea was that our brains needed long breaks, such as a good night’s sleep, to solidly form what we learned while acquiring a new skill. But after examining brain waves from healthy volunteers doing learning and memory experiments, some involving typing, at the NIH Clinical Center, the researchers involved in the study started to change their mind.

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“I noticed that participants’ brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions,” said Dr.  Marlene Bönstrup, who led the study, in a release. “This gave me the idea to look much more closely for when learning was actually happening. Was it during practice or rest?”

Productive resting

Researchers discovered two important findings. First, the volunteers’ performance improved mostly during the short rests, not during the typing. The improvements made during the rest periods added to the overall improvements the volunteers made over the course of the day.

Second, those improvements were much bigger than the ones seen after the ones the volunteers returned the next day to try again – suggesting that the short breaks were as important as the practicing, and the “full night’s sleep” theory not as important.

“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, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a senior author of the paper published in the journal Current Biology.

Ultimately, Dr. Cohen hopes the results of this study, further explored, will be used to help people in need who have lost the ability to do certain skills because of accident or illness.

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

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