A new study from Cell Reports states that in order to keep knowledge with you throughout life, you need to be taking breaks as you’re learning new skills.
Data was collected from a series of participants who were tasked to type in the numbers 41324 on a keypad as quickly as possible without error. They would type, then have a rest period, both lasting ten seconds each, and the cycle would repeat.
This was all while participant’s brains were tracked with magnetoencephalography (MEG), which compiled information from their hippocampal and neocortical regions as they learned the number-typing task.
Though it was a simple and straightforward exercise, researchers learned that the neural pathways that are activated by the task are reactivated at a higher rate of speed than the original task, like a video on fast-forward. This neural pathway is reactivated, and the task is replayed until the participant begins the task again. How fast one’s replay rate determines how fast they’ll learn the skill at hand, which in this scenario was just simple number-typing.
All kinds of facets can inhibit one’s processing speed, such as brain injury or dementia. The average “consolidation of skill,” as researchers call it, is about 20 times the speed of the original task. Scientists also posit that age could be a hindrance to skill learning time and processing time. That being said, older adults are just as likely as young adults to be capable of learning skills, even if it’s at a slightly slower rate.
While number-typing isn’t especially true to life unless you’re an accountant or a data entry specialist, this method of learning can also apply to other skills. The types of skills that are learned through this method can be everything from a new language to a new hobby or a new sport. Anything that works out your brain through repetition and experience qualifies as a new skill learned, especially if it’s difficult, or if you need processing time to digest some of the more nuanced facets of it.
Whether your processing speed is faster or slower, it’s especially important to continue learning skills throughout life. No matter your age, learning new skills can lead to cognitive growth, increased consolidation of skills, and improvement in one’s overall quality of life.
While it’s good to learn new skills, and unconscious processes constantly occur in the brain, none of that is new information in the world of learning and memory research. What’s interesting about this cutting-edge study is that periods of wakeful rest are more productive for processing skills than periods of full rest, like sleeping. This is especially the case for those over 55 years old, as studies show that wakeful rest is better for the hippocampal processing of older populations.
Taking small breaks when attempting a task for the first time will increase your likelihood of learning it at a much faster rate than doing it for a few hours, then going to sleep on it. But “wakeful rest” isn’t just pausing the activity to go do something else. It’s the act of sitting almost in a meditative way as you make a concerted attempt to relax.
With just a few of these short, reflective moments sprinkled into your skill-building, you’ll be letting your brain do what it does best: processing, encoding, and digesting information.