Taking Tiny Breaks Is Key To Learning New Skills

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Brain activity associated with learning of left-handed key-presses during rest periods, via Bönstrup et al 2019

By Matthew Warren

A wealth of research has shown that taking breaks is an important part of learning. Resting straight after acquiring new information seems to improve memory of that information, for example, and sleep is particularly important for consolidating what we have just learned. 

Now it seems that even miniscule breaks, just seconds long, are also vital for learning new skills. A study published recently in Current Biology has found that most of the improvement while learning a motor task comes not while actually practicing, but instead during the breaks between practice sessions.

To look at the benefits of short breaks during learning, Marlene Bönstrup and colleagues recruited 27 participants to learn a short sequence of key presses. Across 36 trials, each 10 seconds long, the participants repeatedly tapped out the sequence 4-1-3-2-4 as quickly as possible, using four fingers of their left hand. A 10-second rest period separated each trial.

The participants improved drastically across the first 11 trials, increasing their speed from just over 1 key per second to more than 3.5 keys per second. After that their performance plateaued.

But when the researchers looked at how performance improved during these 11 trials, they found that, on average, participants were no faster at the end of each trial than they were at the beginning of that same trial. Instead, improvements were made solely between trials: participants were faster at typing the sequence immediately after a 10-second break than they were just before the break. 

The findings suggest that early improvements when learning a new skill are made “offline”, during periods when the task isn’t actually being performed. This is consistent with past studies highlighting the importance of rest periods in learning, say the authors, albeit on a much shorter timescale. “These results support the idea that the brain opportunistically consolidates previous memories whenever it is not actively learning”, they write.

The team also identified a neural basis for these “offline” improvements. While the participants completed the task, the researchers measured their brain activity using magnetoencephalography (MEG). They found that improvement in performance between trials was related to the amplitude of beta waves (brain waves between 16 and 22Hz): smaller amplitude beta waves in the frontoparietal part of the brain during breaks were associated with greater improvements in performance. Beta wave activity is known to be reduced while people prepare and execute movements, so the authors suggest that this pattern of activity could indicate some kind of reactivation and consolidation of memory related to the task.

The study only looked at performance when people learned a very simple motor task, and it remains to be seen whether short breaks are equally as important when acquiring more complicated skills. But even knowing how to best improve basic motor function could be useful in situations like rehabilitative medicine. “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,” said senior author Leonardo Cohen in an accompanying press release. 

A Rapid Form of Offline Consolidation in Skill Learning

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest