Study: Taking a break – even for 10 seconds – helps your brain learn

You wouldn't think even a 10-second break would help, but it does.

  • A study finds that even short breaks help you solidify new learning.
  • In a way, learning really only happens during your breaks.
  • For the most effective learning sessions, build-in short rest periods.

It's been believed for some time that resting, ideally sleeping, after learning something new helps you lock in your newly acquired knowledge. Now a study finds that even short breaks can be beneficial. It's a fascinating study that suggests that we don't improve as we practice, but rather during the breaks we take.

Type '4-1-3-2-4', coneheads!

Image: Pixabay

In a study from the National Institutes of Health – led by Marlene Bönstrup, a post-doc in the lab of Leonard G. Cohen – the brain waves of 27 healthy volunteers were monitored as they practiced typing 4-1-3-2-4 as fast as they could for 10 seconds using only their left hand, and then resting for 10 seconds. They did this 36 times. Long, cone-shaped, magnetoencephalography brain-scanning caps they wore allowed researchers to record their brain activity.

Speed gains

Image: Flickr

As you might expect, subjects' speeds improved with practice up through the 11th trial, starting out at about one key per second and topping out at about 3.5 keys per second. No further gain in speed was seen in trials 12-36.

When the researchers looked more closely at the participants' improvements, they noticed something surprising. On average, subjects performed at the same speed throughout each trial. It was only between trials — as they rested — that they got faster. By the time the next trial began, their speed had improved.

Neural evidence

"I noticed that participants' brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions," Bönstrup tells the NIH. "This gave me the idea to look much more closely for when learning was actually happening. Was it during practice or rest?"

The scans suggested that the phenomenon has to do with 16-22Hz beta waves in the frontoparietal area of the brain. These waves are associated with someone planning movement, and, indeed, when subjects rested, the researchers saw changes in the amplitude of these waves that suggest their brains were solidifying memory and getting ready to type faster. It was also apparent that most of this occurred in the right hemisphere of a participant's brain, which is associated with the left hand.

While the study was concerned with the learning of motor skills, the finding may be more broadly applicable, and further research will be required. "Whether these results apply to other forms of learning and memory formation remains an open question," says Cohen.

In any event, the study has intriguing implications for learning in a variety of settings. As Cohen says,"Our results suggest that it may be important to optimize the timing and configuration of rest intervals when implementing rehabilitative treatments in stroke patients or when learning to play the piano in normal volunteers."

Another intriguing offline idea

This is what problem-solving looks like.

(Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)

Neuroscientists have been looking closely at our mechanisms for learning, and there's been a lot of interest in the interplay between active thinking and learning and what your brain does while — on a conscious level anyway — you're resting or sleeping.

Barbara Oakley, author of Mindshift, refers to your brain as having two distinct circuits for these two states. In her Big Think Edge video, "Breaking Through Learning Obstacles: Activate Your Neural Networks," she explains how they work together as you acquire new knowledge.

  • The focus neural network — This is the neural network you employ when you're concentrating on a problem you're deliberately trying to solve.
  • The diffuse neural network — This is a neural network that can continue to work on a problem in the background as you're consciously thinking about other things.
Being laser-focused on a problem isn't always the best way to arrive at its solution. By allowing yourself a chance to process, your brain has time to creatively work through the problem while its offline. "You relax, you go off for a walk, you take a shower," as Oakley says. Often, when you once again focus, you'll find the solution magically presents itself.