When cultivating a new skill, taking a short break can go a long way. This gives our brains time to replay what we just practiced, helping to cement our skills.
A study from the National Institutes of Health has been looking into best practices when learning a new skill such as playing a new song on the piano. The research involved monitoring participants’ brain activity while practicing, and revealed that taking short breaks during this time is a great way to help speed the process along.
Although taking time off seems counterproductive when practicing, the authors explain that our brains rapidly and repeatedly go through the activity we’re learning during these breaks, reviewing it faster and faster. The more time it gets to do this, the better a participant’s performance during subsequent practice sessions, the team adds, which suggests that these breaks actually helped strengthen their memory of the task.
“Our results support the idea that wakeful rest plays just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill. It appears to be the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practiced,” said Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., senior investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the senior author of the study published in Cell Reports.
“Understanding this role of neural replay may not only help shape how we learn new skills but also how we help patients recover skills lost after neurological injury like stroke.”
The study was carried out at the NIH’s Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, using a technique known as magnetoencephalography. This allowed the team to record the brain activity of 33 healthy, right-handed volunteers as they learned to type a five-digit test code (41234) with their left hands. They were seated in a chair and wore a long, cone-shaped scanner cap during the experiment. Each participant was asked to type this code out as many times as possible for 10 seconds and then take a 10-second break, a cycle which they repeated for 35 times.
During the first trials, participants massively improved their ability to type the code up to around the 11th cycle. Previous research done at the NIH shows that the largest part of this improvement happens during the short rest periods, not when the subjects are actually typing. More significantly, the improvements seen during these trials were greater than those seen after a night’s sleep (when memories are strengthened naturally).
As the participants improved at the task, the authors also saw a decrease in the size of brain waves, called beta rhythms.
“We wanted to explore the mechanisms behind memory strengthening seen during wakeful rest. Several forms of memory appear to rely on the replaying of neural activity, so we decided to test this idea out for procedural skill learning,” said Ethan R. Buch, Ph.D., a staff scientist on Dr. Cohen’s team and leader of the study.
So the team developed software that could interpret the brain wave patterns recorded while each participant typed in their test code. This showed that a faster version of these waves, around 20 times faster, were replaying in the participants’ brains during the rest periods. Over the first eleven cycles, these ‘compressed’ versions of the events were replayed around 25 times per rest period. Beyond that, they reduced in number: by two or three times during the final cycles compared to the first eleven ones.
Participants whose brains replayed the typing the most showed the greatest improvements in performance following each cycle, the authors note. This strongly suggests that the replaying has a direct impact on the efficiency of our practice sessions, likely through memory strengthening.
“During the early part of the learning curve we saw that wakeful rest replay was compressed in time, frequent, and a good predictor of variability in learning a new skill across individuals,” said Dr. Buch. “This suggests that during wakeful rest the brain binds together the memories required to learn a new skill.”
As for where in the brain this process takes place, the paper reports that it ‘often’ took place in sensorimotor regions of the brain — i.e. regions involved in movement and sensory processing. However, other areas of the brain were involved as well, most notably the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex.
“We were a bit surprised by these last results. Traditionally, it was thought that the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex may not play such a substantive role in procedural memory. In contrast, our results suggest that these regions are rapidly chattering with the sensorimotor cortex when learning these types of skills,” said Dr. Cohen.
The paper “Consolidation of human skill linked to waking hippocampo-neocortical replay” has been published in the journal Cell Reports.