Take a Break to Learn Better

What’s New in Psychology?

Take a Break to Learn Better

Jim Windell

           What’s the best way to learn new material?

           Should you engage in a long, sustained session of going over the material to be learned? Or is it better to do it in short bursts of learning?

           But what exactly happens in our brain when we’re trying to lean a new skill?

           These questions have been addressed in a new study; a study that may provide important answers.

           This new study, conducted at the National Institute of Health Clinical Center, a team of researchers used a highly sensitive scanning technique, called magnetoencephalography, to record the brain waves of 33 healthy, right-handed volunteers as they learned to type a five-digit test code with their left hands. The idea was to map out the brain activity that flows when we learn a new skill.

           The subjects sat in a chair under the scanner's long, cone-shaped cap. An experiment began when a subject was shown the code "41234" on a screen and asked to type it out as many times as possible for 10 seconds and then take a 10 second break. Subjects were asked to repeat this cycle of alternating practice and rest sessions a total of 35 times.

           During the first few trials, the speed at which subjects correctly typed the code improved dramatically and then leveled off around the 11th cycle. In a previous study, led by former NIH postdoctoral fellow Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., a team showed that most of these gains happened during short rests, and not when the subjects were typing. Moreover, the gains were greater than those made after a night's sleep and were correlated with a decrease in the size of brain waves, called beta rhythms.

           In this new report, Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., senior investigator at the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the senior author of the study, directed a team to search for something different in the subjects' brain waves.

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

           To bring this about, Leonardo Claudino, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cohen's lab, helped Dr. Buch develop a computer program which allowed the team to decipher the brain wave activity associated with typing each number in the test code.

           The researchers found that during rest the volunteers' brains rapidly and repeatedly replayed faster versions of the activity seen while they practiced typing a code. The more a volunteer replayed the activity the better they performed during subsequent practice sessions, suggesting rest strengthened 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," said Cohen. “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.”

           Buch emphasized that during the early part of the learning curve they saw that wakeful rest replay was compressed in time, frequent, and a good predictor of variability in learning a new skill across individuals. This suggested to the researchers that during wakeful rest the brain binds together the memories required to learn a new skill.

           As expected, the team discovered that the replay activity often happened in the sensorimotor regions of the brain, which are responsible for controlling movements. However, they also saw activity in other brain regions, namely the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex.

         "We were a bit surprised by these last results,” said Dr. Cohen. “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.”

           Overall, Cohen concluded, their results, published in the journal Cell Reports, 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 bottom line, though, is that if you are learning how to play a new song on the piano and memorizing a speech, taking short breaks from practice is a key to learning.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Ethan R. Buch, Leonardo Claudino, Romain Quentin, Marlene Bönstrup, Leonardo G. Cohen. Consolidation of human skill linked to waking hippocampo-neocortical replay. Cell Reports, 2021; 35 (10): 109193 DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109193




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