Tag Archives: skills

Taking short breaks while practicing lets our brains review what we’re doing — and get better at it

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.

Image via Pixabay.

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.

Festina lente

“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.

Screen time doesn’t make kids less social, inter-generational analysis reveals

Social distancing means more time inside for our youngsters, and that also means more screen time. However, a new study suggests that this isn’t cause for much concern — young people today are just as socially skilled as those from the previous generation, it found.

Image via Pixabay.

The team compared teacher and parent evaluations of children who started kindergarten in 1998, which is around six years before the launch of Facebook with those who started school in 2010 when the first iPad debuted. According to their findings, both groups were rated similarly on interpersonal skills — such as the ability to form and maintain friendships and get along with people who are different from them. Both groups were also rated similarly for self-control, the ability to regulate one’s temper.

Kids these days

“In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later,” said Douglas Downey, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

“There’s very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills.”

Downey conducted the study with Benjamin Gibbs, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. The idea for the study came several years ago during — of all things — an argument Downey had with his son at a pizza restaurant. They were discussing whether younger generations had poorer social skills than older ones.

“I started explaining to him how terrible his generation was in terms of their social skills, probably because of how much time they spent looking at screens,” Downey said. “[His son] Nick asked me how I knew that. And when I checked there really wasn’t any solid evidence.”

To get to the bottom of the issue, Downey used data from The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which is run by the National Center for Educational Statistics and follows children from kindergarten to the end of fifth grade. Using this data, they compared children who began kindergarten in 1998 (19,150 students) with the cohort that began kindergarten in 2010 (13,400 students).

As part of the study, each child was assessed by teachers six times during this time. They were also assessed by parents at the beginning and end of kindergarten and the end of first grade. The authors focused mostly on teacher evaluations because they are more abundant and perhaps more objective — although the results from parents were comparable, they say.

Children’s social skill did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even children in the two groups who were engaging in the most screentime showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, results showed.

As far as the teachers were concerned, children’s social skill did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even children in the two groups who were engaging in the most screen time showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, results showed.

“But even that was a pretty small effect,” Downey said. “Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children.”

“There is a tendency for every generation at my age to start to have concerns about the younger generation. It is an old story. The introduction of telephones, automobiles, radio all led to moral panic among adults of the time because the technology allowed children to enjoy more autonomy,” he says.

If anything, all this new technology is teaching younger generations that having good social relationships means being able to communicate successfully both face-to-face and online, Downey said.

The paper “Kids These Days: Are Face-to-Face Social Skills among American Children Declining?” has been published in the American Journal of Sociology.