Studies challenge the common sense of “practice makes perfect” and show that breaks serve the brain to “replay” newly acquired learning and thus consolidate it
To the to learn something new, like a song on the piano, it is more efficient to take short breaks than to practice endlessly until exhaustion.
To learn something new, you have to practice, practice, practice, says common sense, that idea of ”practice makes perfect”.
but several scientific studies have pointed out that relentless practice may not be the most efficient way to learn a new skill: the brain needs breaks to consolidate newly acquired knowledge and transform it from a transient memory to a lasting one.
And one of the most recent findings is that short breaks interspersed with exercise lead to big learning gains: the brain takes advantage of these breaks to perform a “repetition” super-quick brainstorm of what you’ve just learned, reinforcing the newly acquired skill.
These short breaks they can be particularly productive for the brains of those who practice new, tiny, repetitive movements, such as athletes or musicians, or even patients trying to regain skills lost after a stroke
“Imagine a scenario in which a person begins to learn to play a new song on the piano,” explains Brazilian researcher Leonardo Claudino, one of the co-authors of a study on the subject carried out by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of USA and published in 2021.
“We found that during breaks, the brain repeats a version 50 times faster of the movements used to play the song, over and over again, which reinforces the connection of neurons in the areas associated with that new memory”, he adds.
ten second break
In that study, Claudino and other researchers at the NIH recorded the brain activity of 33 right-handed volunteers as they learned to type a sequence of numbers with their left hands on the keyboard.
The volunteers had to write as many sequences as possible for ten seconds and then take a ten-second break.
Some members of this same research team, led by the scientist Marlene Bonstruphad already observed in previous studies that, after the brief intervals, the volunteers improved the speed and precision with which they typed numerical sequences of this type.
Now, the goal was to understand what happens in the brain in this process.
And, using magnetoencephalography tests, the scientists were able to observe the rapid “repetitions” that the brain made of what it had just learned.
“And we discovered that (consolidation) occurs on a much faster time scale than previously believed,” says Leonardo Claudino.
“A two-second skill is repeated in the brain on the scale of milliseconds.”
By doing these “repetitions”, the brain consolidates learning.
The idea of brain breaks also applies to athletes training new movements.
The memory pathway in the brain
Even before studying the effect of these short pauses, scientists already knew that the brain needed rest to consolidate memories.
In practice, according to scientific knowledge to date, this involves transferring memory from the hippocampus, where temporary records are kept, to areas of the neocortex, where the longest-lasting memory is found.
But until these more recent discoveries, it was believed that only during sleep, when the brain is most free from external sensory input, did this consolidation process occur.
With the new studies, Claudino points out, it is possible to perceive that memories are also consolidated almost simultaneously with practice, a process that seems to be complementary to what happens while we sleep.
But this is something that still needs to be confirmed by more research.
“Not much is known yet, and they are certainly physiologically different. (…) but perhaps the dream encodes a more complete experience: the whole context (of that memory), who was there, what the environment was like, “he says. Leonardo Claudino..
“A quick pause can register more minute details: the synergy between the fingers when typing, the movement. It is a hypothesis for someone to investigate in the future.”
How to put it into practice
How, then, can we make practical use of scientific knowledge accumulated so far?
“I see a more direct use when I think in sports or musical practices, that involve sessions in which the athlete or artist will perform the same movement several times”, explains Claudino.
“One lesson to keep in mind is this: when you start to learn a new technique, avoid practicing to exhaustion, to failure. Instead, it’s better to take breaks,” he says.
“Perfection will come faster if the brain is given time to consolidate (learning) instead of endlessly practicing for perfection”.
“Usually we learn a new technique by repeating it over and over again, you repeat, you repeat, and eventually you know the sequences of movements that will produce the final activity.”
“The idea is that you, instead of practicing until exhaustion, do it ten times, for example, then take a rest and do it again.”
The same reasoning can also guide pedagogical practices in schools or universities.
“In a teaching environment, perhaps the teacher, by introducing a fundamentally new concept, can think of the learning session as including these breaks,” the researcher details.
“It is important that the student has these rest periods, because his brain will be active, despite the rest, this is our discovery. Your hippocampus and its cortex will be doing these exchanges, which will consolidate recent learning,” he says.
What is not yet known for sure is the ideal duration of a break for optimal consolidation of new learning.
“That is one of the challenges of practical application,” says Claudino, recalling that this may also depend on the type of skill learned and the individual characteristics of each practitioner.
But in the NIH studies, those in which volunteers typed sequences on the keyboard, the researchers found that learning gain was greater when practice and breaks were of similar length.
For example, ten minutes of practice and ten minutes of rest.
Claudino points out, however, that these are controlled studies, carried out in the laboratory, so his conclusions do not necessarily translate exactly to real life.