Taking short breaks is key to helping the brain learn new skills

BETHESDA, Md. — Learning a new skill is a great way to enrich your life, challenge oneself, and keep the mind sharp. Of course, perfecting a new craft is almost always easier said than done. We’ve all given up on a project or new hobby out of sheer frustration at some point. If you’ve been struggling to master a certain activity, researchers from the National Institutes of Health recommend taking some short breaks to recharge the mind.

A team from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) mapped out the flow of neural activity within the mind while someone is learning a new skill. Along the way, they discovered that a few short breaks while practicing and learning a skill can go a long way toward retention. Why? While taking a break, the participants’ brains showed the exact same activity patterns as when they were learning and practicing a new code, only much faster and continuously in a rapid fashion. The more a volunteer’s mind replayed this neural activity the better they ended up performing during later practice sessions.

What does all this mean when it comes to learning new things?

Study authors theorize that taking a break gives the brain some time to repeatedly replay compressed memories related to the skill someone is practicing. In short, rest strengthens and reinforces practice and learned memories.

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

Researchers used a highly sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography to record brain wave activity among 33 healthy, right-handed volunteers while they learned how to type a five-digit test code with their left hands. Each person had type out the code as many times as possible for 10 seconds and then take a 10 second rest. Each volunteer completed this exercise 35 times. Participants saw their typing speed improve dramatically from the beginning, before leveling off around the eleventh try.

Is taking a quick break from learning even better than sleep?

Dr. Cohen’s team had previously established that most “learning gains” (like typing a code faster) appear to occur within the brain during short rests, not while the actual activity is happening. Surprisingly, that earlier study concluded that the learning gains taking place during a short break were greater than those made after a night’s sleep.

“We wanted to explore the mechanisms behind memory strengthening seen during wakeful rest. 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,” adds study leader Ethan R. Buch, Ph.D., a staff scientist on Dr. Cohen’s team.

So, for this newest study the team developed a program allowing them to focus on the brain wave activity associated with typing each individual number of the test code. That program revealed that the very same brain activity patterns seen during learning and practice continue on during rest, but at a pace of about 20 times faster. During the first 11 cycles, participants’ brains repeated this neural pattern an average of 25 times per 10-second rest period – which is two to three times more often than brain activity recorded during later rest periods or after the experiments had ended.

“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,” Dr. Buch notes. “This suggests that during wakeful rest the brain binds together the memories required to learn a new skill.”

Where does all this learning take place?

Much of this brain activity was located within the brain’s sensorimotor regions, which are in charge of controlling movements. However, researchers also recorded some activity within both the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex.

“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,” Dr. Cohen concludes. “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.”

The team published their findings in the journal Cell Reports.