Forget ‘powering through’, new research suggests that regular short breaks can help us learn

We’ve all been there. Deadlines are looming and there’s a million and one things on our to-do list, so we push through fatigue and brain fog until the job is done.

But is ‘powering through’ really the best course of action when it comes to learning new skills? Anecdotally, many of us will be able to relate to how much better we feel when we take a break from something and come back with fresh eyes – and now a new study from the National Institutes of Health has mapped out exactly why that is.

In the study, researchers looked at the brain activity of 33 right-handed, healthy volunteers as they learned to type a five-digit code with their left hands. They were shown the code on a screen and asked to type it out as many times as they could in 10 seconds, and then to take a 10-second break.

They saw that following periods of rest, the volunteers’ brains ‘rapidly and repeatedly’ replayed faster versions of the brain activity while they practised typing the code. The more they replayed the activity, the better they performed in practice sessions, which lead the researchers to conclude that resting strengthens our memories.

“Our results support the idea that wakeful rest plays just as important a role as practice in learning a new skill. It appears to be the period when our brains compress and consolidate memories of what we just practised,” said Leonardo G. Cohen, senior investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the senior author of the study published in Cell Reports.

“Understanding this role of neural replay may not only help shape how we learn new skills but also how we help patients recover skills lost after a neurological injury like stroke.”

Interestingly, the team discovered that the gains in ability were greater after short rest than those after a night’s sleep.

“We wanted to explore the mechanisms behind memory strengthening seen during wakeful rest. Several forms of memory appear to rely on the replaying of neural activity, so we decided to test this idea out for procedural skill learning,” said Ethan R. Buch, a staff scientist and leader of the study.

While these findings could be life-changing for those recovering from neurological injuries, there are always ways that you can apply these principles to your own life. Next time you’ve got a difficult task ahead of you, perhaps when learning a new skill or studying for a test, try creating a schedule that strictly adheres to a routine of restful breaks. You may be surprised by the potential you can unlock.

Struggling with brain fog and fatigue? Connect with a nutritionist at Nutritionist Resource.