When it comes to learning new things, the age-old advice is to "practise, practise, practise." New research out this week, however, found that taking early and frequent short breaks may be just as critical to the learning process as the practising part.
Whether it be an instrument, a language, or a sport, learning new skills has many benefits, including improving your brain's working memory and increasing your verbal and language skills.
The more adept you become at a new skill the less work your brain has to do to carry it out. Think back to when you learned to drive a car or ride a bicycle - initially, every single action was thought about in detail, but over time and lots of practise the skill became automatic and now you can drive or cycle without really thinking about it.
Previous research has shown that our brains need long periods of rest, such as a good night's sleep, to help strengthen the memories formed after practising a newly learned skill. While researching this, scientists accidentally found that short, fast rests while learning the new skill could be even more important to learning than an overnight rest.
The discovery was found while studying a group of volunteers who were shown a series of numbers on a screen and asked to type the numbers that they just saw as many times as possible using their non-dominant hand for 10 seconds.
The volunteers were then asked to take a 10-second break before repeating the test with a different sequence of numbers. This activity of number sequences and subsequent rest was repeated 35 more times, with the speed that the volunteers correctly typed the numbers measured throughout.
The researchers found that the speed and accuracy with which the volunteers correctly typed the numbers improved dramatically during the first few trials and then levelled off around the 11th cycle.
During the tests, a highly sensitive brain scanning technique called magnetoencephalography was used. Magnetoencephalography is a functional neuroimaging technique that records magnetic fields produced by electrical currents occurring in the brain, allowing a map of brain activity to be made.
While observing the brain scans, the scientists noticed that the participants' brainwaves seemed to change much more during the rest periods than during the physical typing sessions.
Although the rest periods were not initially part of the study, they went back and reanalysed the data to look at it in more detail and found that the changes in the size of the brain waves known as beta rhythms correlated with the improvements that the volunteers made during the rest periods.
These brainwave activity patterns suggested that the volunteers' brains were consolidating or solidifying memories during the rest periods, rather than during the activity itself. They also were able to locate that the changes in the beta oscillations occurred in the right hemisphere of the brain along neural networks connecting the frontal and parietal lobes, which are known to help control the planning of movements.
They also found that the sum of these small gains during the quick breaks were four times larger than the gains which were seen after the volunteers returned the next day after a restful night's sleep.
The research published in the journal Current Biology suggests that if you want to truly master a new skill, scheduling regular breaks into your practise sessions could help your brain to learn something new much more easily.