We know that during the learning process breaks are important, and that resting and sleeping help us remember and consolidate the new information or skill we’ve taken on board.
Now it appears that even breaks of only a few seconds also play a vital role in learning new skills.
Matthew Warren* reports on a study published in the online journal Current Biology whereby researchers found that most of the improvement while learning a motor task comes not while actually practising, but instead during the breaks between practice sessions.
He describes how, across 36 trials of 10 seconds each, a group of participants typed out a short sequence of keystrokes. They had a rest of 10 seconds between each trial. In the first 11 trials they improved their typing speed drastically; after that they plateaued.
In looking at the performance of the first 11 trials, researchers found that, on average, participants only improved between trials, that is, they typed faster after a 10-second break.
What could this mean? The findings suggest that early improvements when learning a new skill are made “offline”, during periods when the task isn’t actually being performed. The researchers say this is consistent with past studies highlighting the importance of rest periods in learning, on a much shorter time scale of course: “These results support the idea that the brain opportunistically consolidates previous memories whenever it is not actively learning.”
Having measured the brain activity of participants during the trials, the team also identified a neural basis for these “offline” improvements. The differences in brain waves when performing the tasks and when resting leads the authors to suggest that this pattern of activity could indicate some kind of reactivation and consolidation of memory related to the task.
This study involved a very simple motor task and we don’t know for sure the importance of short breaks when acquiring more complicated skills. The team hopes that knowledge of how to best improve basic motor function could be useful in rehabilitative medicine.
Senior researcher Leonardo Cohen said, “Our ultimate hope is that the results of our experiments will help patients recover from the paralysing effects caused by strokes and other neurological injuries by informing the strategies they use to ‘relearn’ lost skills.”