Have a terrible memory? Try taking more breaks, study says. Here’s why they help

·2 min read

When learning a new skill such as playing the guitar or speaking another language, don’t bother taping your eyelids open to get another hour of practice before bedtime, a new study says.

Instead, break up your training with several short breaks.

Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that your brain can learn and retain information better during periods of rest because it’s given the space to replay the notes or new words, for example, at a much faster pace and more frequently.

An experiment involving 33 volunteers tasked with typing a five-digit code they had never seen before found that the participants’ brain activity related to learning the new skill was about 20 times faster during breaks than it was during actual practice time. These “compressed versions of the activity” were also replayed about 25 times per rest period, or about two to three times more often than the activity after the experiments had ended.

The takeaway: the more a person practices a new skill, the better they can perform that skill during later sessions — a learning process that is done more quickly and frequently when the brain is allowed to relax, suggesting rest strengthens memories, according to the study published June 8 in the journal Cell Reports.

“Our results support the idea that wakeful rest plays just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill,” senior author of the study Dr. Leonardo Cohen, senior investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said in a statement. “It appears to be the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced.”

What’s more, “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,” Cohen added.

The researchers recorded the volunteers’ brain waves using a sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography as they learned how to type a five-digit code with their non-dominant hand. Participants had to type the code as many times as possible for 10 seconds and then take a 10-second break, repeating this cycle for 35 minutes.

A computer program the team developed then helped researchers determine the mechanisms behind memory improvements during wakeful rest by measuring the replay of neural activity, which occurred much faster and more frequently compared to practice time.

The study built on previous research the team worked on, which found most memory gains were greater after a night’s sleep.

“Overall, our results 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,” Cohen said.

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