- Paula Adamo Idoeta
- BBC News Brazil in London
To learn something new, you have to practice, practice, practice, says common sense – the idea is that “one becomes a blacksmith by choking one’s throat”.
But a number of scientific studies have shown that relentless practice may not be the most effective way to learn a new skill: the brain needs rest to consolidate newly acquired knowledge and transform it from temporary to permanent memory.
And one of the latest discoveries is that short breaks interspersed with activity practice lead to important learning gains: the brain uses these breaks to mentally and very quickly review what has just been learned, thereby reinforcing newly acquired skill.
Specifically to read on BBC Africa:
These short breaks can be particularly productive for the brains of those who practice new, repetitive, and painstaking movements, such as athletes or musicians—even patients trying to regain skills lost after a stroke (see later in the report).
“Imagine a scenario where a person starts learning to play a new song on the piano. During pauses, the brain repeats a 50 times faster version of the movements used to play music over and over, which amplifies it. Subject conducted by the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) Brazilian researcher Leonardo Claudino, one of the co-authors of a related study, explains to BBC News Brazil and was published in the journal Cell Reports in 2021.
In this study, he and other NIH researchers recorded the brain activity of 33 right-handed volunteers as they learned to type a string of numbers on a keyboard with their left hand.
Volunteers had to write as many sequences as possible for ten seconds and then pause for ten seconds.
Some members of the same research team, led by scientist Marlene Bönstrup, had already observed in previous studies that after short pauses, volunteers improved speed and accuracy when typing such numerical sequences.
The goal was to understand what was going on in the brain during this process. And thanks to the magnetoencephalography studies, the scientists were able to observe the rapid “repetitions” of the brain doing what it just learned.
“And we found that[consolidation]is happening on a much faster timescale than previously believed,” says Leonardo Claudino.
“A skill of two seconds begins to be repeated in the brain on a millisecond scale.” By doing these “rehearsals” the brain reinforces learning.
memory pathway in the brain
Even before examining the effect of these short breaks, scientists already knew that the brain needs rest to consolidate memories – in practice, according to current scientific knowledge, this is the transfer of memory from the hippocampus, where temporary records are kept. neocortex, where more durable memory resides.
Until these recent discoveries, however, this consolidation process was thought to occur only during sleep, when the brain is more free from external sensory stimuli.
Claudino points out that with new studies, it’s possible to see memories merge almost simultaneously with practice—a process that seems to complement what happens during sleep.
But this still needs to be confirmed by further research.
“Not much is known yet, and physiologically (pause) they are definitely different. The rapid pause may be recording the finer details: synergy between fingers when typing, movement. This is a hypothesis that one could work with in the future,” reflects Leonardo Claudino.
So how can we make practical use of the scientific knowledge that has accumulated up to now?
“I see a more direct benefit when I think of sports practices or musical performances that involve sessions where the athlete or performer will perform the same movement several times,” Claudino explains.
“One lesson to be learned is this: When you start learning a new technique, avoid working until you run out, until you fail. Instead, it’s better to take a break. Excellence is achieved faster if you give your brain time to consolidate (learning), rather than constantly aiming for perfection. “
“Usually we learn a new technique by repeating it a few times – repeat, repeat, repeat, and there comes a time when you already know the sequences of movements that will produce the final activity. The idea is that instead of practicing until you run out, you do, say, ten times, then stops and you do it again.
The same reasoning can guide teaching practice in schools or universities.
“In a teaching setting, perhaps the teacher might think that when introducing a fundamentally new concept, the learning session already includes these breaks. It is important for the student to have these rest periods because their brain will be active despite rest – this is our finding. The hippocampus and cortex will reinforce what they have just learned. will make these changes.”
What we still don’t know for sure is what an ideal break time is for optimal consolidation of new learning.
“That’s one of the challenges of practical practice,” Claudino says, noting that it can also depend on the type of skill learned and the individual characteristics of each practitioner.
However, in NIH studies where volunteers typed sequences on the keyboard, researchers observed greater learning gains when training and breaks were of similar duration. For example, train for ten minutes and take a break for ten minutes.
However, Claudino emphasizes that these are controlled studies carried out in the laboratory and therefore their results cannot be transferred to real life.
Likewise, because the experiments take place in completely controlled environments, it’s hard to find a “miracle recipe” for the most effective type of pause to help the brain learn.
In the case of laboratory studies, each volunteer during the break remained motionless without typing on the computer.
In real life, the researcher offers the brain some rest from what it has learned.
“I imagine that if one is learning to play a song, (pausing) would just be to stop playing it, not thinking about something else or doing any other activity that might interfere with it – for example, don’t try to play n. When you pause at the first, learn another song because you use the same areas and abilities” explains.
Other research areas have also contributed to the science of learning and provide complementary findings that can help consolidate knowledge.
Cognitive psychology researcher Barbara Oakley, author of Learning to Learn, explained in a 2020 interview with BBC News Brazil that the brain works in two complementary ways in learning: focused mode (when we pay attention to something). e.g. exercise, a movie or a teacher) and diffuse mode (when the brain relaxes).
According to Oakley, the brain must switch from diffuse mode to focused mode in order to learn effectively. Relaxing the mind – whether by going for a walk or changing activities – therefore directly contributes to improved learning and problem solving.
“When you’re stuck on a math exercise, the best thing to do is change your focus and study geography, so you can make progress when you get back to math,” Oakley says.
Going back to Leonardo Claudino’s research, one of the goals of studying memory consolidation during short breaks is to help people regain their abilities after a stroke. This can be done in the future by optimizing rehabilitation sessions as much as possible.
“We now have a biological marker to know when and where the brain consolidates competence,” the scientist explains. “We might consider developing a monitoring system while the person is performing occupational therapy or a neurostimulation or neuromodulation technique, (…) and have the system maximize skill repetitions.”
This optimal stimulation of the brain can allow rehabilitation to produce faster results, Claudino says.
“Our results show that it may be important to optimize the timing and configuration of rest intervals when administering rehabilitation treatments in stroke patients or learning to play the piano in normal volunteers,” said Leonardo Cohen, MD, head of the laboratory responsible for this research. in a press release at the NIH.
Leonardo Claudino adds that these are areas of research that are still open for now. The important thing is to understand that the brain never stops learning, even during periods of rest.
“What goes against common sense is that your brain doesn’t stop when you stop. We’re still figuring this out, but (during these breaks) you’re engaging your brain with less stimulus processing and movement production. Give it the opportunity to reinforce what it’s learned before.”