Learning a new skill is a great way to enrich your life, challenge oneself, and keep the mind sharp.
Of course, perfecting a new craft is almost always easier said than done. We’ve all given up on a project or new hobby out of sheer frustration at some point. If you’ve been struggling to master a certain activity, researchers from the National Institutes of Health recommend taking some short breaks to recharge the mind.
A team from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) mapped out the flow of neural activity within the mind while someone is learning a new skill. Along the way, they discovered that a few short breaks while practicing and learning a skill can go a long way toward retention. Why? While taking a break, the participants’ brains showed the exact same activity patterns as when they were learning and practicing a new code, only much faster and continuously in a rapid fashion. The more a volunteer’s mind replayed this neural activity the better they ended up performing during later practice sessions.
Researchers used a highly sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography to record brain wave activity among 33 healthy, right-handed volunteers while they learned how to type a five-digit test code with their left hands. Each person had type out the code as many times as possible for 10 seconds and then take a 10 second rest. Each volunteer completed this exercise 35 times. Participants saw their typing speed improve dramatically from the beginning, before leveling off around the eleventh try.
Dr. Cohen’s team had previously established that most “learning gains” (like typing a code faster) appear to occur within the brain during short rests, not while the actual activity is happening. Surprisingly, that earlier study concluded that the learning gains taking place during a short break were greater than those made after a night’s sleep.