We’ve all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”, and this is so true; sustained focus and effort is needed to learn any new skill.
But few realize that it’s also important to allocate short rest periods within each practice session. In fact, strange as it may seem, the rest periods themselves are what supercharge our ability to learn and retain new memories.
Here’s the fascinating story and how it can help you master any new skill.
Ten years ago researchers at the University of Illinois enrolled 84 people in a study on learning and performing a new skill.
Researchers divided the participants into four groups. Three of the groups performed a 50 minute repetitive computerized task in different ways without a break, while the fourth took two short breaks during the task.
Only the fourth group saw no drop in performance. But why?
Prolonged Attention Hinders Performance
It seems that prolonged attention to a single task actually hindered performance while brief diversions from a task dramatically improved performance.
Lead researcher, professor Alejandro Lleras, was delighted, saying, “It was amazing that performance seemed to be unimpaired by time, while for the other groups performance was so clearly dropping off.”
But what is happening in the brain to bring this about? That’s what scientists from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sought to find out.
Short Rest Periods Better Than Sleep
For their study, 33 volunteers sat under a highly sensitive scan called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which maps brain activity by measuring magnetic fields produced by the electrical activity of neurons.
All the participants were right-handed and were asked to type the five-digit test code “41234” with their left hands when they were shown it on a screen.
They had to type it out as many times as possible for ten seconds and then take a ten second break. This cycle of alternating practice and rest sessions was repeated a total of 35 times.
The subjects’ ability to type the code improved dramatically during the first ten cycles before leveling off.
“We wanted to explore the mechanisms behind memory strengthening seen during wakeful rest,” explained one of the study authors, Dr. Ethan Bush. “Several forms of memory appear to rely on the replaying of neural activity, so we decided to test this idea out for procedural skill learning.”
Dr. Bush and his team developed a computer program to assess brain activity. This is what they found…
Brain Practice is 20 Times Faster
Previous National Institutes of Health research demonstrated that the gains in brain activity mostly happened during the rest periods and not when the participants were typing. They also showed these gains were greater than after a night’s sleep and correlated with a decrease in the size of brain waves called beta rhythms.
What Dr. Bush and his team discovered is that during the rest periods the brain practices and replays over and over much faster versions of the typing activity.
When the volunteers were learning they might be able to type the code five times during each ten seconds of practice. Yet during the ten second rest period the brain replays 25 repetitions of the sequence, a five-fold increase. But it gets even better because the brain is able to amplify these effects over time.
As the participants improve and are able to type the code ten times in ten seconds, brain activity also improves and is able to replay it 200 times, a twenty-fold increase.
Dr. Bush explained, saying, “It’s as if the brain actively exploits these rest periods to amplify the effects of practice and rapidly consolidate the skill memory. And this actually appears to be the skill-binding mechanism that we were looking for.”
Unexpected Brain Regions Involved
Dr. Bush and his team found that replay activity often occurred in the sensorimotor regions of the brain which control movement. This was expected.
What was unexpected was the activity seen in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex, as explained by another study author, Leonardo G. Cohen.
“We were a bit surprised by these last results.
“Traditionally, it was thought that the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex may not play such a substantive role in procedural memory. In contrast, our results suggest that these regions are rapidly chattering with the sensorimotor cortex when learning these types of skills.
“Overall, our results support the idea that manipulating replay activity during waking rest may be a powerful tool that researchers can use to help individuals learn new skills faster and possibly facilitate rehabilitation from stroke.”
While there’s still much to uncover about how the brain works when learning new information, the message is clear: If you’re learning a new skill, work hard at it, but take short breaks and you’ll experience more rapid learning and a more powerful recall of your new skill. You’ll be a master in no time.