Why short breaks help the brain learn

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More and more people have had to multitask, and not just since Corona. Office workers jump from the spreadsheet into the text program and then into the browser, check important KPIs, have a one-hour video conference in between – and the many emails and chats regularly distract from getting really deep into a single piece of work. If you are in the home office, you may also have the next generation who makes “deep work” seemingly impossible.

But are interruptions to work really as problematic as we experience them? A new study by the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) now suggests: It all depends on how they are organized. As it turns out, this is especially true when we want to master a new skill that is connected with practice. “Everyone always thinks that you have to” practice, practice, practice “when you learn something new. Instead, we found that resting, early and often, is at least as critical to learning,” says Leonardo G. Cohen, doctor and Brain specialist at National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.

The study, which was overlooked by Cohen and carried out by postdoc Marlene Bönstrup from Germany, shows that it is not simply enough to get enough sleep during a learning process so that the necessary memories can be created in the brain overnight. Instead, pauses during the actual learning process also help, which can be demonstrated on the living object by means of brain scans using magnetoencephalography (MEG).

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More from MIT Technology Review

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More from MIT Technology Review

In the experiment, the test subjects were shown a series of numbers on a screen, which they then had to type in with their left hand as often as possible – all test subjects were right-handed. This work consisted of 10 seconds of typing and 10 seconds of rest – a total of 36 times. As the number of cycles increased, the correctness of the numbers typed in improved.

The exciting thing about it: The brain wave display from the MEG showed that the resting phases clearly stood out from the typing phases. Bönstrup wanted to find out when learning actually took place – during breaks or in practice. As a data analysis showed, this was actually the case during the short periods of rest. Apparently, the consolidation and consolidation of the manual dexterity took place in the breaks. A further investigation showed that during these phases the areas of the brain that are used for movement planning were addressed.

Bönstrup and her boss Cohen believe that it is very important how you coordinate exercise and break intervals in order to optimize the learning effect. This does not only apply to healthy people who want to practice playing the piano, for example. Such patterns could also be used in the rehabilitation of stroke patients to make it easier to relearn even simple skills. Next, the researchers want to find out what the optimal balance between exercise and breaks looks like.


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