Taking a break is a key part of learning anything, new research suggests.

Brain scan.

Some of the brain areas that saw increased activity during the trials.
Image courtesy of Cohen lab, NIH/NINDS.

A new study from the National Institute of Health says that our brains retain the memory of a skill we’re practicing a few seconds faster by taking a short rest. The findings will help guide skill-relearning therapies for patients recovering from the paralyzing effects of strokes or other brain injuries, the team hopes. However, they should be broadly-applicable to anybody trying to learn a new skill that involves physical movement.

Slow and steady wins the race

“Everyone thinks you need to ‘practice, practice, practice’ when learning something new. Instead, we found that resting, early and often, may be just as critical to learning as practice,” said Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a senior author of the paper.

“Our ultimate hope is that the results of our experiments will help patients recover from the paralyzing effects caused by strokes and other neurological injuries by informing the strategies they use to ‘relearn’ lost skills.”

Lead researcher Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cohen’s lab, says she had believed, like many of her colleagues, that our brains needed long periods of rest (i.e. sleep) to strengthen new memories. This included memories associated with learning a new skill. However, after seeing brain wave recordings of healthy volunteers in ongoing learning and memory experiments at the NIH Clinical Center, she started questioning that view.

These brain waves were recorded in right-handed volunteers with magnetoencephalography, a very sensitive scanning technique. Each participant was seated in a chair facing a computer screen under a long, cone-shaped brain scanning cap. Volunteers were shown a series of numbers on the screen then asked to type the numbers as many times as possible in 10 seconds using their left hand. Then, they took a 10-second break, and started typing again; each participant repeated this cycle of practice and rest 35 times.

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Volunteer’s performance improved dramatically over the course of the trial, leveling off around the 11th cycle, the team reports. However, an important finding was ‘when’ this improvement seemed to take place in the brain.

“I noticed that participants’ brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions,” said Dr. Bönstrup. “This gave me the idea to look much more closely for when learning was actually happening. Was it during practice or rest?”

The team explains that the data shows participants’ performance increased primarily during the short rest periods, not while they were typing. These improvements made while resting added up to create the overall gains each volunteer saw during the trial. Furthermore, the sum improvements seen during these breaks was much greater than what the volunteers experienced over time (the trial spanned two days) — this last tidbit suggests that the short breaks played as critical a role in learning as practicing itself.

By looking at the brain waves, Dr. Bönstrup found that the participants’ brains were busy consolidating memories during these short rest periods. The team reports finding changes in the participants’ beta rhythms that correlated with the improvements the volunteers made during the rests. Further analysis reveals that the changes in beta oscillations primarily took place in the right hemispheres and along with neural networks connecting the frontal and parietal lobes. These structures are associated with planning and control of movements. These changes only happened during the breaks, and were the only brain wave patterns that correlated with performance.

“Our results suggest that it may be important to optimize the timing and configuration of rest intervals when implementing rehabilitative treatments in stroke patients or when learning to play the piano in normal volunteers,” said Dr. Cohen.

“Whether these results apply to other forms of learning and memory formation remains an open question.”

Dr. Cohen’s team plans to explore, in greater detail, the role of these early resting periods in learning and memory.

The paper ” A Rapid Form of Offline Consolidation in Skill Learning” has been published in the journal Current Biology.