If you are a frequent reader of this publication, you’ve seen articles urging you to learn a new skill to keep your brain young. The benefits are huge, especially for working memory. Learning a new language or mastering a musical instrument are good examples.

“In addition to making existing synapses more robust, learning causes the brain to grow larger,” according to Scientific American. As with other muscles, your brain strengthens itself over time as you learn new things.

I’m a committed lifelong learner myself, and I make a practice of adding another new skill to my bag of tricks whenever possible.

But. . .the older I get, the harder it gets. At this point, trying to learn a new language looks like a real stretch because my memory is not what it used to be. (Learning a new language is a stretch at any age, except maybe 2 to 5.) Happy to say I’ve come across a tip that may help. . .

These days scientists believe there’s more to retaining new information than endless repetition. New evidence suggests that learning in short bursts may lead to better retention.

That’s right, whether you are a college student cramming for a final or simply a weekend warrior trying to nail your best tennis serve, it’s essential that you take breaks to up your learning retention.

In a recent National Institute of Health study1 of healthy volunteers, researchers discovered that our brains may retain new skills better by taking a short rest.

“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 Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a senior author of the paper.

Take a Short Rest, Remember Better

Before the study, researchers held a general belief that our brains needed long periods of rest, like a good night’s sleep, to bolster the memories created while practicing a new skill.

But after observing the brain waves recorded from volunteers in learning and memory experiments, scientists questioned this assumption.

Each participant donned a brain scanning cap and faced a computer screen where they were shown a series of numbers and asked to type the numbers as many times as they could within ten seconds, then take a ten second break. Then they repeated this cycle, alternating practice and rest 35 more times.

The volunteers’ speed and accuracy improved dramatically during the first few trials and then leveled off.

“I noticed that participants’ brain waves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the typing sessions,” said Dr. Marlene Bönstrup, the study’s lead scientist. “This gave me the idea to look much more closely for when learning was actually happening. Was it during practice or rest?”

Upon further analysis, researchers deduced that  volunteers’ performance improved primarily during the short rests, and while they were actually typing.

Additionally, improvements were even better when these same people returned the next day and tried it again, suggesting that the early breaks played as critical a role in learning as the practicing itself.

Savvy Break-Taking Strategies

When you are learning a new skill it’s human nature to be get tunnel vision and take few breaks. But this research suggests that spreading out the learning may be the preferred approach.

Learning experts advocate breaking the learning process into small chunks throughout the day. There’s a sweet spot, they say, between 30 minutes and 50 minutes.

In general, the longer you want to retain the knowledge, the longer your study break should be, according to one study.2

Scientists believe that learning in short bursts allows the signaling  between neurons to strengthen steadily.

Ultimately, I don’t need scientists to tell me why a brain break is important. I know from experience that when it comes to learning and retaining new skills and knowledge, I always benefit from periods of rest to let the information solidify.

  1. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/News-Events/News-and-Press-Releases/Press-Releases/Want-learn-new-skill-Take-some-short-breaks
  2. Cepeda, N., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tests: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354-380.