PLANEGG, Germany — Taking breaks often helps people to “clear their minds” after a long day. Now, a new study finds taking even longer breaks may actually help people to “strengthen their minds” so they can remember more. Researchers in Germany find that taking a longer break in between mental tasks helps the brain remember more about the activity they just completed.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology add that more time off in between learning events leads to stronger connections between certain brain neurons. Experiments with mice reveal that when the brain has this time to rest before trying that activity again, mice used the same neuronal connections they did the first time they learned a task.
On the other hand, the study finds shorter breaks lead to the brain using different neurons when learning resumes. When this happens, the brain remembers less about the task and subjects perform worse in mental tests. Researchers compare it to the effect of cramming all your studying for a test into one night, instead of spreading out your studying habits over a longer time leading up to the exam.
What happens in the brain that makes longer breaks helpful?
Neurobiologists Annet Glas and Pieter Goltstein investigated this connection in a group of mice running through a maze. The animals had to remember the location of a hidden piece of chocolate along the course. Study authors sent the mice through the maze three times, varying the length of their breaks in between each exercise.
“Mice that were trained with the longer intervals between learning phases were not able to remember the position of the chocolate as quickly,” explains Glas in a university release. “But on the next day, the longer the pauses, the better was the mice’s memory.”
The team also measured the activity of neurons in each animal’s prefrontal cortex. This brain region has a link to the learning process and previous studies have revealed its connection to handling complex thinking tasks. With that in mind, the study finds less activity in the prefrontal cortex impaired the mice’s ability to successfully navigate the maze.
“If three learning phases follow each other very quickly, we intuitively expected the same neurons to be activated,” Goltstein says. “After all, it is the same experiment with the same information. However, after a long break, it would be conceivable that the brain interprets the following learning phase as a new event and processes it with different neurons.”
Despite those assumptions, researchers found the exact opposite was true. Having shorter pauses led to more fluctuations in brain activity and than longer pauses. Specifically, running through the maze in three quick trips with short breaks led to the activation of different neurons in each trip. However, with longer break in between, mice used the same neurons during each trip — strengthening these brain connections for future learning.
“That’s why we believe that memory benefits from longer breaks,” Goltstein concludes.
The findings appear in the journal Current Biology.