In season two of the show 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon says to her boss, “I have to do that thing rich people do, where they turn money into more money." While our brains can’t passively invest in stocks for us and watch the money grow, they can do almost exactly that when working on a new skill: turn learning into more learning.
This is exemplified by a study published June 8 in Cell Reports. Scientists examined the fluctuating magnetic fields in the brains of participants asked to perform a sequential task repeatedly. They observed that in the brief breaks between the practice rounds, that task was replayed rapidly in their minds as if learning on its own.
This brief rest time, it turns out, played the most important role in their mastery of the task: almost all of their skill improvement happened during the breaks.
Like a tape player on fast forward, the brain compressed the sequence of the task (a five-item numerical sequence played with certain fingers) and replayed it about 20 times faster than the time it took them to physically perform it during the 10-second pauses between trials, replaying it rapidly behind the scenes and boosting their performance as they got the hang of it.
“What this is telling us is that we have to start paying a lot more attention to practice and the structure of the schedule, as well as the brain activity that occurs during rest,” senior author Leonardo G. Cohen tells Inverse. Cohen is a senior investigator in the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health.
“It seems to be that most, if not all, of early learning occurs over these rest periods and virtually nothing is detected during the practice intervals,” he says.
Better understanding this aspect of learning underscores the role of breaks when learning certain skills, and may help people with certain brain injuries or problems to learn skills faster.
HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — In this study, participants learned to play a sequence of numbers on a keyboard. This is categorized as a type of learning known as “procedural learning.” Procedural learning, the authors explain, generally encompasses any kind of skill that requires practice to master.
“You need to basically experience it,” lead author Ethan R. Buch tells Inverse. He’s also a staff scientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “You can be given some instructions about how to do something, but you won't be able to get better unless you actually experience it or practice it over and over again.”
Language is one such skill, Buch explains, and so is learning directions — like how to get from home to a new job.
And working our brains out, so to speak, by learning a new skill isn’t just good for impressing at parties: It’s actually one of the key components of health as we grow older. Education, research suggests, might extend life — a year gained for a year educated. Studies have shown that learning a new complex skill — a language, digital photography, quilting — may improve memory and slow age-related decline.
These are skills where repetition and experience are key. And breaks from activities where your brain replays a sequence rapidly, as in the study, may be where most of that learning occurs.
WHY IT'S A HACK — Scientists have long known that rest periods are crucial for learning, and even that most of our learning takes place in rest. What they didn’t know exactly what was going on in the brain as we rested. This study helps to illustrate just what our brain gets up to in that downtime.
Cohen explains these “wakeful rest” periods are much more powerful at consolidating information than overnight sleeping, which often hogs the spotlight. According to Cohen, an astounding 90 percent of our learning from when we start practicing something until the following morning, occurs in those wakeful rest periods — and only 10 percent during sleep.
“The biological importance of wakeful consolidation has been somehow discounted; underestimated,” Cohen says.
It’s still not entirely clear yet, however, how long or short the breaks should be, or how they should be spaced apart for optimal learning.
“This is another interesting line of investigation, which is likely to be task-dependent,” says Cohen. “For example, it may not be the same for typing a piano sequence as for playing the clarinet.”
SCIENCE IN ACTION — Researchers had 33 young female and male volunteers (all right-handed, for more consistently tracking their brain activity) learn a simple task. They were to play a computer game of sorts: play the right sequence of five numbers in the right order, with designated fingers of one hand.
Participants were to repeat the sequence as best they could during 10-second periods until they had repeated the practice period 36 times. In between the practice periods, they rested while looking at their screen for 10 seconds. Researchers used MRI scans and MEG recording to decipher what was going on in the participants’ brains throughout. MEG is a type of highly sensitive brain scan that detects electromagnetic activity in the brain from the scalp by way of a helmet-like attachment.
Once participants stopped practice to rest for 10 seconds, their brain replayed the number sequence rapidly — and fastest after the first few rounds — an action that allowed them to perform better the next time. The participants who had the fastest replay also performed better on the task.
Cohen said the findings lend themselves to a few possibilities for improving learning. For example, detecting and rewarding a “replay event” in someone’s brain, “to generate the type of brain activity that can accelerate the number of replays or increase the number of replays.”
HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 — 😌😌😌😌😌/10