- Paula Adamo Idoeta
- BBC News Brazil in London
To learn something new, you have to practice, practice, practice, says common sense: this idea that “it’s engorging that you become a blacksmith.”
But a number of scientific studies have shown that relentless practice is perhaps not the most effective way to learn a new skill: the brain needs rest to consolidate newly acquired knowledge and transform it from a transient memory to a lasting memory. .
And one of the most recent discoveries is that short breaks interspersed with the practice of activities lead to significant learning gains: the brain uses these breaks to mentally and very quickly review what it has just learned, thus reinforcing the new skill acquired. .
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These short breaks can be especially productive for the brains of those who practice new, repetitive, and thorough movements, such as athletes or musicians, or even patients trying to regain lost skills after a stroke (see below for details). ‘report).
“Imagine a scenario where a person starts learning to play a new song on the piano. We found that during breaks, the brain repeats a 50-fold faster version of the movements used to play the music over and over again, which which strengthens the connection of neurons in the areas associated with this new memory, “Brazilian researcher Leonardo Claudino, one of the co-authors of a study on the subject by the National Institutes of Health of America (NIH), told BBC News Brazil ) and published in 2021 in the journal Cell Reports.
In this study, he and other NIH researchers recorded the brain activity of 33 right-wing volunteers as they learned to type a sequence of numbers on a keyboard with their left hand.
Volunteers had to write as many sequences as possible for ten seconds and then pause for ten seconds.
Some members of the same research team, led by scientist Marlene Bönstrup, had observed in previous studies that after brief breaks, volunteers improved the speed and accuracy with which they wrote such numerical sequences.
The goal was to understand what goes on in the brain during this process. And thanks to magnetoencephalography exams, scientists were able to observe the rapid “repetitions” that the brain was doing of what it had just learned.
“And we found that (consolidation) occurs on a much faster time scale than previously thought,” notes Leonardo Claudino.
“A two-second skill begins to repeat itself in the brain on a millisecond scale.” By doing these “tests,” the brain consolidates learning.
The path from memory to the brain
Even before studying the effect of these brief pauses, scientists already knew that the brain needs rest to consolidate memories; in practice, according to current scientific knowledge, it is a matter of transferring memory from the hippocampus, where the temporal records are kept, to areas of the neocortex, where the most lasting memory is found.
But until these recent discoveries, this consolidation process was thought to occur only during sleep, when the brain is freer from external sensory stimuli.
With the new studies, Claudino points out, it is possible to see that memories also consolidate almost simultaneously in practice, a process that seems complementary to what happens during sleep.
But that is yet to be confirmed with further research.
“Not much is known yet, and they are certainly (pause) physiologically different. (…) But perhaps sleep encodes a more complete experience: the whole context (of that memory), who was there, how it was the environment, the quick pause may be recording smaller details: the synergy between the fingers when writing, the movement. This is a hypothesis that someone can study in the future “, reflects Leonardo Claudino.
So how can we make the most of the scientific knowledge we have gained so far?
“I see a more direct use when I think of sports practices or musical performances, which involve sessions during which the athlete or artist will perform the same movement several times,” says Claudino.
“One lesson to learn is this: When you start learning a new technique, avoid practicing to the point of exhaustion, to the point of failure. Instead, it’s better to take breaks. Perfection will be achieved more quickly if we give time to the brain. to consolidate (learning).), instead of practicing non-stop to aim for perfection “.
“Usually we learn a new technique by repeating it several times: repeat, repeat, repeat, and there comes a time when you already know the sequences of movements that will produce the final activity. The idea is that instead of practicing it until the end ‘exhaustion., you do it ten times, for example, then you stop and do it again.
The same reasoning can also guide teaching practices in schools or universities.
“In a teaching environment, perhaps the teacher, when introducing a fundamentally new concept, may think that the learning session already includes these pauses. It is important that the student has these rest periods, because their “The brain will be active, and at rest, that’s our finding. Your hippocampus and cortex will make those changes, which will consolidate recent learning.”
What we do not yet know for sure is the ideal duration of a break for the optimal consolidation of new learning.
“This is one of the challenges of practical application,” says Claudino, noting that it can 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 observed that the learning gain was greater when training and breaks had a similar duration. For example, ten minutes of training and ten minutes of rest.
Claudino emphasizes, however, that these are controlled studies, carried out in the laboratory, and that, therefore, their conclusions are not necessarily transposable to real life.
Also, because the experiments were conducted in fully controlled environments, it is difficult to find a “miracle recipe” for the most effective type of pause to help the brain learn.
In the case of the laboratory studies, during the break, each volunteer remained motionless, without typing on the computer.
In real life, the researcher suggests giving your brain some rest from what you are learning.
“If the person is learning to play a song, I would imagine that (stopping) would be to stop playing, think about something else, or not do any other activity that might interfere with it, for example, n Don’t try to do it. “Learn another song when you pause the first one, because you use the same regions and skills,” he explains.
Other lines of research have also contributed to the science of learning and provide complementary findings that can help consolidate knowledge.
In a 2020 interview with BBC News Brazil, cognitive psychology researcher Barbara Oakley, author of the book Learning to Learn, explained that the brain works in two different ways, complementing each other in learning: focused mode (when we lend attention to an exercise, a movie or the teacher, for example) and fuzzy mode (when the brain is relaxed).
According to Oakley, the brain must switch from diffuse mode to focused mode to learn effectively. Therefore, relaxing the mind, whether taking a walk or changing activities, directly contributes to improving learning and problem solving.
“When you stay in a math exercise, the best thing you can do is change your focus and study geography. That way you’ll be able to move forward when you get back to math,” Oakley suggests.
Patients with stroke
Going back to Leonardo Claudino’s research, one of the goals of the study of memory consolidation during short breaks is to help people regain their abilities after suffering a stroke. This could be done in the future by optimizing the rehabilitation sessions to the maximum.
“We now have a biological marker to know when the brain is consolidating competition and where this is happening,” says the scientist. “We can think of developing a monitoring system while the person is doing occupational therapy or a technique of neurostimulation or neuromodulation, (…) and that the system maximizes the repetition of the skill.”
This optimal brain stimulation can allow rehabilitation to produce faster results, says Claudino.
“Our results suggest that optimizing time and setting rest intervals may be important when implementing rehabilitation treatments in stroke patients or when learning to play the piano in normal volunteers,” said Leonardo Cohen. , MD, head of the laboratory responsible for this research. at the NIH, in a press release.
These are currently still open research areas, adds Leonardo Claudino. The important thing is to understand that even during rest periods, the brain never stops learning.
“What goes against common sense is that when you’re stopped, your brain isn’t stopped. We’re still figuring it out, but (during these breaks) you keep your brain busy with less stimulus processing and movement production. -the opportunity to consolidate what you have already learned “.