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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Want To Learn a New Skill? Take Some Short Breaks

A doctor and a nurse look at a computer screen

A doctor and a nurse look at a screen.

Photo: Dolgachov/istock

In a study of healthy volunteers, NIH researchers found that our brains may solidify the memories of new skills we just practiced a few seconds earlier by taking a short rest. The results highlight the critically important role rest may play in learning.

“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 Dr. Leonardo Cohen, NINDS senior investigator and a senior author of the paper published Mar. 28 in the journal Current Biology. “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 study was led by Dr. Marlene Bönstrup, a postdoctoral fellow in Cohen’s lab. Like many scientists, she held the general 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 looking at brain waves recorded from healthy volunteers in learning and memory experiments at the Clinical Center, she started to question the idea.

The waves were recorded from right-handed volunteers with a highly sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography. The subjects sat in a chair facing a computer screen and under a cone-shaped brain-scanning cap. The experiment began when they 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 strategy is typically used to reduce any complications that could arise from fatigue or other factors.

As expected, the volunteers’ speed at which they correctly typed the numbers improved dramatically during the first few trials and then leveled off around the 11th cycle. When Bönstrup looked at the volunteers’ brain waves, she observed something interesting.

“I noticed that participants’ brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions,” she said. “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, she and her colleagues made two key findings. First, they found that the volunteers’ performance improved primarily during the short rests and not during typing. The improvements made during the rest periods added up to the overall gains the volunteers made that day. Moreover, these gains were much greater than the ones seen after the volunteers returned the next day to try again, suggesting that the early breaks played as critical a role in learning as the practicing itself. 

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

Published 25 times each year, it comes out on payday Fridays.

Associate Editor: Carla Garnett
Carla.Garnett@nih.gov

Staff Writers:

Eric Bock
Eric.Bock@nih.gov

Dana Talesnik
Dana.Talesnik@nih.gov

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