NEWS

Taking Breaks Is Key to Learning, Research Shows

A Black person with short hair is seen with an electric guitar in a well-lit room.
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Key Takeaways

  • Learning is promoted by periods of rest in between practice times so that a skill can be consolidated while awake.
  • During breaks, recorded magnetoencephalography (MEG) demonstrates that there is a compressed neural replay at a rate of approximately 20-times the acquired skill for consolidation.
  • Taking breaks should be valued throughout the day when learning a new task.

Individuals are often encouraged to take breaks when learning. And a recently published study in Cell Reports demonstrates why, as the brain needs that time to consolidate the skill in between its practice.

Especially in light of the last year, when many have had to navigate increased work-life balance issues with the pandemic, this research reinforces the need for breaks to be better incorporated into all spaces.

Whether learning is being pursued by children at school or adults in the workplace, this research bodes well for the importance of breaks to be prioritized as part of the process given its impact on skill consolidation.

Understanding the Research

This study was conducted with 33 right-handed participants who were not active musicians following a neurological screening to understand how the brain uses wakeful rest to consolidate memory when learning a skill.

Earlier research had demonstrated "the spacing effect" whereby skill memorization is enhanced when interspersed with rest periods in between practices, rather than in rapid succession, as waking replay reinforces hippocampal and neocortical associations that were previously practiced.

A limitation of this study is the difficulty of differentiating between the identification of biological phenomena and mislabeling artifacts, which is the reality of any analysis that is based on classification.

Memory Needs Breaks for Consolidation

Neurologist, neuroscientist, and director of neuro-oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, says, ”During the rest period after learning, there is a ‘virtual’ replay in memory circuits in the brain that allows for memory to consolidate.”

For skill consolidation of a practiced behavior, Kesari says, "The presence of this waking rest in between practice allows hippocampal and neocortical replay and supports wakeful memory consolidation. We also need to translate this important mechanism into therapies for patients."

Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD

While practice does make perfect, this may actually occur in between the practice sessions, the waking rests, and future research on optimizing strategic rest periods may improve memory and learning.

— Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD

In terms of general memory consolidation, "We know that a good night's sleep helps, but this study shows that taking breaks after repetitive memorizing of tasks may help improve memory and successful learning during the day," Kesari says,

"While practice does make perfect, this may actually occur in between the practice sessions, the waking rests, and future research on optimizing strategic rest periods may improve memory and learning. This study highlights this and will open new and important pathways to optimize learning techniques in the future."

An Overworked Society Fails to Value Breaks

Educational psychologist and founder of The Global Institute of Children's Mental Health, Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, LPC, BCN, says, "For the average person, this research is important because there is such an increase in clinical mental health issues, ADHD and learning challenges, so one can look at the cognitive and memory processing research for ways to boost their own learning."

"Trying intense periods of learning with true brain breaks where one isn’t online or doing anything else would be a great place to start."

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, LPC, BCN

In our overworked society, we don’t value true downtime and this research highlights that being intentionally off-line boosts our brain’s learning.

— Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, LPC, BCN

When asked one thing she wished the public would know that does not get enough attention, Capanna-Hodge says, "In our overworked society, we don’t value true downtime and this research highlights that being intentionally off-line boosts our brain’s learning. We need to calm our brain and body in order to optimize learning, as our brain needs time to consolidate and integrate information into one's schemata or framework."

Capanna-Hodge says, "Having worked with thousands over thirty years who struggle with anxiety, OCD, ADHD, and mood issues, it is clear that when one doesn’t take time to regulate their nervous system, mental and physical health issues will interfere with learning and memory. Taking intentional brain breaks and using tools such as breathing exercises can go a long way in improving attention, cognitive and memory functioning."

What This Means For You

As this study demonstrates, taking breaks in between practice is a crucial part of the very process of learning, even aside from the general need for balance between such work and other areas of life. Especially given how much individuals of all ages have had to juggle alongside the uncertainty of the pandemic, this study provides a good reason to incorporate more breaks into school and work settings for learning.

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  1. Buch ER, Claudino L, Quentin R, Bönstrup M, Cohen LG. Consolidation of human skill linked to waking hippocampo-neocortical replayCell Rep. 2021;35(10):109193. doi:10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109193