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Short breaks may be the key to learning new skills, study finds

Too much practice without stepping away may not be helpful in the learning process

Photo (c) krisanapong detraphiphat - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the National Institutes of Health explored the best way for consumers to go about learning a new skill. 

According to their findings, stepping away from practice for a little while might be the answer. They explained that taking short breaks from a lesson or practice session can be an effective way to perform better later on. 

“Our results support the idea that wakeful rest plays just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill,” said researcher Dr. Leonardo G. Cohen. “It appears to be the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced. Understanding this role of neural replay may not only shape how we learn new skills, but also how we help patients recover skills after neurological injury like stroke.” 

Sharpening our skills

For the study, the researchers had 33 right-handed participants complete an experiment. The group was given a five-digit code, and their goal was to type the code into a computer with their left hand as many times as they could for 10 seconds. They conducted 35 trials, alternating between 10 seconds of the test and 10 seconds of rest. During these trials, the researchers monitored the participants’ brain waves and used a comprehensive computer program to translate their brain activity. 

“We wanted to explore the mechanisms behind memory strengthening seen during wakeful rest,” said researcher Ethan R. Buch, Ph.D. “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.” 

The researchers learned that during the designated rest periods, the participants’ brains replayed the five-digit code at a rapid pace. Then, when they went to go back in for the experiment, they were often faster and more accurate at punching in the code with their left hands. The team explained that the more times the brain replayed the code during the rest periods, the better the participants performed during the trial. 

“During the early part of the learning curve, we saw that wakeful rest replay was compressed in time, frequent, and a good predictor of variability in learning a new skill across individuals,” said Dr. Buch. “This suggests that during wakeful rest, the brain binds together the memories required to learn a new skill.” 

“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,” added Cohen. 

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