Quirks & Quarks

Your brain replays new skills at superspeed during rest periods to boost learning

This high-speed instant replay in the brain during breaks in learning is thought to amplify a person's ability to pick up a new skill.

Brief rests between practice sessions allow the brain to review the skill and inscribe it in memory

Scientists have found that short bursts of rest while learning a skill like playing the piano allows a person perform that skill faster over time, with fewer errors and more nuance. (Torsten Silz / DDP / AFP via Getty Images)

Practice makes perfect, but according to a new study, mixing short periods of rest into your practice sessions when learning a new task will help you perfect whatever skill you're learning a lot faster, because your brain practices at superspeed during those breaks.

"It's as if the brain is actively exploiting these rest periods to amplify the effects of practice, which helps rapidly consolidate the skill memory," said Ethan Buch, a staff scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, in an interview with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

Researchers have previously found that longer periods of rest, like a good night's sleep, can be important to strengthen memories formed as part of learning a new skill. This new research suggests short periods of rest — as little as ten seconds — while practicing skills like learning a piece on a piano, or studying for an exam, can lead to four times the improvement you get from overnight memory consolidation.

Buch and his colleagues wanted to find out why that occurs, so they studied the brain activity of test subjects who interspersed periods of rest while practicing a new skill. The practice task was just entering a sequence of numbers into a computer, but Buch said it was analogous to learning a tune on a piano.

In the study, people had to repeatedly typed "41324" on a keyboard as quickly and as accurately as possible during 36 ten-second trials interspersed between ten-second rest periods. (Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images)

"The elements of the piano piece are actually just individual key presses, but the skill that's being learned is actually the collection of them. And what the brain is trying to do [during periods of rest] is bind this collection of key presses into a single skill, which allows us to perform the skill faster over time, with fewer errors and even with more nuance."

By incorporating rest periods when a person first learns a new skill, there is a 10-fold improvement in how quickly they can pick it up. 

Instant replay in the brain

Buch and his colleagues used a brain imaging technique known as magnetoencephalography (MEG) that allowed them to record brain activity.  MEG can capture activity happening in just milliseconds.  

"We had them type a short five number sequence [into a keypad] and they had to do this repeatedly over a period of ten seconds. And then each ten seconds of practice was followed by a ten-second period of rest," he said.

If playing the sequence while the person was practicing took around one second to complete, during the rest periods, the brain would replay that same activity sped up by a factor of 20.

By incorporating rest periods when a person first learns a new skill, there is a 10-fold improvement in how quickly they can pick it up, new research suggests. (Miguel Rojo / AFP via Getty Images)

If playing the sequence while the person was practicing took around one second to complete, and the person played it ten times during ten seconds, then during the rest periods, the brain would replay that same activity 25 times and 20 times faster.

The more your brain replays the activity and the more repetitions it does during rest periods, the more quickly you can cement that memory to improve the skill.

Implications for supercharged learning

Buch and his colleagues are hoping this might have some therapeutic potential for those with brain injuries, such as people who have had strokes and are undergoing rehab for long-term motor disabilities. 

He said he also suspects he and his team they might be able to amplify learning even more for patients by using a non-invasive brain stimulation technique during those periods of rest, "so that we can accelerate the therapeutic benefits they're getting from rehab interventions." 

Occupational therapist Marta Ramírez (right) helps facilitate a rehab session for patient Jose Cobollo, who is recovering from brain damage after a stroke. Buch and his colleagues at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) are studying whether incorporating short periods of rest can accelerate the rehabilitation process. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images)

Buch said that it's likely this rapid succession replay effect is also occurring during rest periods — albeit in different brain regions — when someone studies for an exam or has to perform some other cognitive task.

"One of the ideas in terms of applications is that we can use some of the findings from this type of work to help us structure practice schedules in a way that could enhance learning, especially in people with learning disabilities." 

When McDonald asked Buch if he now uses ten-second breaks when learning something new, he replied, "Yes, definitely."


Produced and written by Sonya Buyting. You can hear the interview with Ethan Buch by clicking the link above.

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