- Paula Adamo Idoeta
- BBC News Brazil in London
To learn something new, you have to practice, practice, practice, says common sense – this idea that “it is by getting enough that you become a blacksmith”.
But a number of scientific studies have shown that relentless practice may not be the most effective way to learn a new skill: the brain needs to rest to consolidate newly acquired knowledge and transform it from a transient memory into a lasting memory.
And one of the most recent findings is that short breaks interspersed with the practice of activities lead to significant learning gains: the brain takes advantage of these breaks to mentally and very quickly review what it has just learned, thus reinforcing the newly acquired skill.
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These short breaks can be particularly productive for the brains of those who practice new, repetitive, meticulous movements, such as athletes or musicians — or even patients trying to regain skills lost after a stroke (see later in the report).
“Imagine a scenario where a person starts learning to play a new song on the piano. We found that during pauses, the brain repeats a 50 times faster version of the movements used to play the song over and over again, which strengthens the connection of neurons in the areas associated with this new memory”, explains to BBC News Brazil the Brazilian researcher Leonardo Claudino, one of the co-authors of a study on the subject carried out by the American National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in 2021 in the journal Cell Reports.
In this study, he and other NIH researchers recorded the brain activity of 33 right-handed volunteers as they learned to type a sequence of numbers on a keyboard with their left hand.
The volunteers had to type as many sequences as possible for ten seconds, then pause for ten seconds.
Some members of the same research team, led by scientist Marlene Bönstrup, had already observed in previous studies that, after the short pauses, the volunteers improved the speed and accuracy with which they typed numerical sequences of this type.
The goal was to understand what happens in the brain during this process. And thanks to the magnetoencephalography tests, the scientists were able to observe the rapid “replays” that the brain made of what it had just learned.
“And we found that (consolidation) happens on a much faster time scale than previously believed”, highlights Leonardo Claudino.
“A two-second skill starts to be repeated in the brain on a scale of milliseconds.” By doing these “trials”, the brain consolidates the learning.
The memory pathway in the brain
Even before studying the effect of these small pauses, scientists already knew that the brain needs rest to consolidate memories – in practice, according to current scientific knowledge, it is about transferring memory from the hippocampus, where the temporary records, for areas of the neocortex, where the most durable memory is located.
But until these recent discoveries, this consolidation process was thought to only occur during sleep, when the brain is most free from external sensory input.
With the new studies, points out Claudino, it is possible to see that memories are also consolidated almost simultaneously with practice — a process that seems to complement what happens during sleep.
But this still needs to be confirmed by further research.
“Not much is known yet, and for sure they are (pause) physiologically different. (…) But perhaps sleep encodes a more complete experience – the whole context (of that memory), who was there, what the environment was like. fast-pause may be registering more subtle details: the synergy between the fingers when typing, the movement. This is a hypothesis that someone can study in the future”, reflects Leonardo Claudino.
How, then, can we take practical advantage of the scientific knowledge accumulated to date?
“I see a more direct use when I think about sports practices or musical performances, which involve sessions in which the athlete or the artist will perform the same movement several times”, explains Claudino.
“One lesson to be learned is this: when you start to learn a new technique, avoid practicing to exhaustion, to failure. Instead, it’s better to take breaks. Perfection will be achieved faster if you give your brain time to consolidate (learning) rather than practicing nonstop for perfection.”
“We usually learn a new technique by repeating it over and over again – you repeat, repeat, repeat, and there comes a time when you already know the sequences of movements that will produce the final activity. The idea is that instead of practicing it until exhaustion, you do it ten times, for example, then you stop and do it again.
The same reasoning can also guide teaching practices in schools or universities.
“In a teaching environment, perhaps the teacher, when introducing a fundamentally new concept, might think that the learning session already includes these breaks. is our discovery. Your hippocampus and cortex will make these changes, which will consolidate recent learning.”
What we still don’t know for sure is what is the optimal duration of a break for optimal consolidation of new learning.
“This is one of the challenges of practical application”, says Claudino, remembering that it can also depend on the type of skill learned and the individual characteristics of each practitioner.
But in the NIH studies, those in which volunteers typed sequences on the keyboard, the researchers observed that the learning gain was greater when training and intervals were of similar duration. For example, ten minutes of practice and ten minutes of break.
Claudino emphasizes, however, that these are controlled studies, carried out in the laboratory, and that their conclusions, therefore, are not necessarily transferable to real life.
Likewise, as the experiments took place in fully controlled environments, it’s hard to find a “miracle recipe” for the most effective type of break to help the brain learn.
In the case of laboratory studies, during the interval, each volunteer remained immobile, without typing on the computer.
In real life, the researcher suggests giving the brain a little rest from what it is learning.
“If the person is learning to play a song, I would imagine that (pausing) would simply be to stop playing, think about something else, or not do some other activity that might interfere with it – for example, n Don’t try to learn another song when you pause in first, because you’re using the same regions and skills,” he explains.
Other lines of research have also contributed to the science of learning – and provide complementary findings that can help consolidate knowledge.
In a 2020 interview with BBC News Brazil, cognitive psychology researcher Barbara Oakley, author of the book Learning to Learn, explained that the brain works in two different ways, which complement each other in learning: the focused mode (when we pay attention to an exercise , a movie or the teacher, for example) and the diffuse mode (when the brain is relaxed).
According to Oakley, the brain must switch from diffuse to focused mode to learn effectively. Relaxing the mind – whether taking a walk or changing activities – therefore directly contributes to improving learning and problem solving.
“When you get stuck on a math assignment, the best thing to do is shift your focus and study geography. That way, you can make progress when you get back to math,” suggests Oakley.
Going back to Leonardo Claudino’s research, one of the goals of studying memory consolidation during short breaks is to help people regain their skills after having a stroke. This could be done in the future by optimizing rehab sessions as much as possible.
“Now we have a biological marker to know when the brain is consolidating competence and where this is happening”, explains the scientist. “We can think about developing a monitoring system while the person is in occupational therapy or a neurostimulation or neuromodulation technique, (…) and having the system maximize repetitions of the skill.”
This optimal brain stimulation may allow rehabilitation to produce faster results, says Claudino.
“Our results suggest that optimizing the timing and setting of rest intervals may be important when implementing rehabilitation treatments in stroke patients or when learning to play the piano in normal volunteers,” said Leonardo Cohen, MD, head of the laboratory responsible for this research. at the NIH in a press release.
These are, for the time being, areas of research that are still open, adds Leonardo Claudino. The important thing is to understand that even during periods of rest, the brain never stops learning.
“What goes against common sense is that when you’re still, your brain isn’t still. We’re still figuring that out, but (during those intervals) you keep your brain busy with less processing of stimuli and producing movement. the opportunity to consolidate what you have already learned.”