You may know that taking breaks when you’re in the middle of a project or study session can refresh you and actually help you learn better, but do you know why?
Researchers shed light on this important cognitive hack by examining the brain waves behind skill learning. What was surprising was that most of the successful learning was happening within the brain when it was resting—even while awake—or after sleeping!
Scientists devised a study with healthy adults which asked them to learn to type a short, 5 number sequence with their non-dominant hand on a keyboard. They were shown the sequence and asked to type it in as many times as possible for ten seconds, followed by a ten second break, which they repeated thirty-five times.
The speed at which they could enter the code increased with practice, but their brains showed the most activity during the ten second rest periods rather than when they were actively typing in the number sequence. To distill the results even further, the researchers at NIH constructed a computer program that could break down the brain wave activity associated with each different number of the sequence.
They found that the brains were replaying the sequence up to three times as quickly as the participants could physically type it, while the brains were at rest! The biggest memory benefits were made in the brains of the participants who replayed it the most; but the participants were not consciously asking their brains to replay what they had learned. The involuntary brain processes were occurring in the background during the rest periods, unbeknownst to the participants.
To get the most out of the time you spend trying to master a new skill or strengthen an old one, remember that your brain is doing most of the heavy lifting for you. Adopting a more measured approach to learning rather than trying to cram all night is the best way to get the most out of your memory and boost your productivity!
Ethan R. Buch, Leonardo Claudino, Romain Quentin et al. Consolidation of human skill linked to waking hippocampo-neocortical replay. Cell Reports, 2021; 35 (10): 109193