Brain Mechanism

Want to Learn A New Skill? Try Taking Some Short Breaks

People may solidify the memory of skills they have just learned if they take a short rest immediately afterward, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The researchers said that the results of the study, published in the journal Current Biology, highlighted the critical role that 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, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and a senior author of the paper. “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.”

The study was led by Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Cohen’s lab. Like many scientists, she held the general belief that our brains needed long periods of rest, such as a good night’s sleep, to strengthen the memories formed while practicing a newly learned skill. But she started to question that idea after looking at brain waves recorded from healthy volunteers in learning and memory experiments at the NIH Clinical Center.


The researchers used a highly sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography to record the waves from right-handed volunteers. The subjects sat in a chair facing a computer screen and under a long cone-shaped brain scanning cap. 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; take a 10 second break; and then repeat this trial cycle of alternating practice and rest 35 more time.

As expected, the volunteers’ speed at which they correctly typed the numbers improved dramatically during the first few trials and then leveled off around the 11th cycle. And when Bönstrup looked at the volunteers’ brain waves, she observed something interesting.

“Participants’ waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions.”

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

By reanalyzing the data of participants’ brain waves during and after typing, she and her colleagues made two key findings. First, they found that the volunteers’ performance improved primarily during the short rests, and not during typing. The 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. That suggested the early breaks played as critical a role in learning as the practicing itself.

Second, by looking at the brain waves, Bönstrup found activity patterns that suggested the volunteers’ brains were consolidating, or solidifying, memories during the rest periods. Specifically, 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 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 happened only during the breaks and were the only brain wave patterns that correlated with performance.

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

Cohen’s team plans to explore, in greater detail, the role of these early resting periods in learning and memory.

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