Andy’s Quick Hits (20): Breaks as Short as Ten Seconds Help Your Brain Learn Quicker

Everyone is interested in learning things and gaining new skills quicker and better. And recent research from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has shown us that this can be made easier than we may have thought.

We have known for along time that rest in particular sleep is critical for learning new skills. In this case this is because connections between neurons, brain cells, have been shown to grow mostly during sleep, deep sleep particularly. So getting a good night’s sleep improves and consolidates learning whether that be cognitive skills or coordinative skills such as playing the piano or tennis. So far soo good.

What this latest research does though is measure short breaks and very short breaks at that. This is particularly interesting. What is even more fascinating is the way the researchers manage to measure this by measuring brain waves of participants and matching this to their behaviour and then watching what the brain did during the breaks (yup, pretty cool).

What did it do? The brain replayed the task. The task in this study was a simple motor task of typing five numbers in sequence as many times as possible within 10 seconds. They noticed that performance increased for the first 10–11 trials then levelled off.

The brain replays activity during breaks

But the most fascinating aspect is that the measurements showed that the brain replayed the activity during the breaks up to 2–3 times faster than when performing the task (or than later after a longer rest)! And even more interestingly those participants brains who replayed it faster improved the most.

A side note for those brain experts amongst you is the of the involvement of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex which are thought not to play a role in procedural learning.

So, short breaks in procedural learning helps learning. Important to note is that you also reach a point of diminishing returns quite quickly in this case after about 10 repetitions.

So, repeat skills in short bursts, with short breaks, for a short period of time. This will apply to skills such as typing, but also more complex tasks, and also presumably to cognitive attention tasks also.

That’s me done now, time for a quick break!

Andy publishes a quick hit every weekday on all things the brain, behaviour, and business. Please follow to receive your daily dose.

Andy is author of leading brains Review a monthly e-magazine on all things the brain, behaviour, and business

The brain and human behaviour, in business, society, learning, and health.

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