A new study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) highlights the critical role of rest in learning new skills. The study found that taking frequent, short breaks in the early stages of learning a new skill may help the brain solidify new memories.
“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 senior author Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
“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.”
The research was led by Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Cohen’s lab. Like many scientists, she held the belief that our brains needed long periods of rest, such as a good night’s sleep, to strengthen the memories formed while practicing a newly learned skill.
But after analyzing the brain waves of healthy volunteers during learning and memory experiments at the NIH Clinical Center, she started to question that belief.
The waves were recorded from right-handed volunteers with a highly sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography. The participants sat in a chair facing a computer screen, under a long cone-shaped brain scanning cap.
The volunteers were shown a series of numbers on a screen and asked to type the numbers as many times as possible with their left hands for 10 seconds; take a 10 second break; and then repeat this trial cycle of alternating practice and rest 35 more times. This approach is typically used to reduce any complications that could arise from fatigue or other factors.
As expected, number-typing speed and accuracy improved dramatically during the first few trials and then leveled off around the 11th cycle. When Bönstrup looked at the volunteers’ brain waves, she saw something interesting.
“I noticed that participants’ brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions,” said Bönstrup. “This gave me the idea to look much more closely for when learning was actually happening. Was it during practice or rest?”
By reanalyzing the data, the research team made two key findings. First, they found that the volunteers’ performance improved primarily during the short rests, and not during typing. The gains made during these resting periods added up to the overall gains the volunteers made that day.
Furthermore, these improvements were much greater than the ones seen after the participants returned the next day to try again, suggesting that the early breaks played as critical a role in learning as the practicing itself.
Second, by looking at the brain waves, Bönstrup found activity patterns that suggested the volunteers’ brains were consolidating, or solidifying, memories during the rest periods. Specifically, the changes in the size of brain waves, called beta rhythms, correlated with the improvements the volunteers made during the rests.
Further analysis suggested that the changes in beta oscillations occurred mostly in the right hemisphere of the participants’ brains and along neural networks connecting the frontal and parietal lobes, regions known to help control the planning of movements. These changes only happened during the breaks and were the only brain wave patterns that were linked to 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 Cohen. “Whether these results apply to other forms of learning and memory formation remains an open question.”
The findings are published in the journal Current Biology.