Thesis: a discovery that demonstrates why you need to take breaks to learn better

Do not get started at the last moment, have a pleasant support to work, do exercises to train … There is already a whole panoply of advice to learn as easily as possible. In order for memorization to be effective, a new tip has now been added to the list. A team of researchers from the US National Institute of Health (NIH) has noticed that our brains recapitulate new information at high speed when we take a break. An unconscious process, which would allow all new memories to “anchor” in the memory at the time of breaks.

We already knew the importance of rest – and more particularly of sleep – in the learning process. Scientists know, for example, that certain areas of the brain linked to learning are reactivated during sleep. So no need to revise all night. Better to let your brain do its thing while we sleep.

This time, the NIH team made it clear the importance of awake rest.

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This “awake rest“corresponds to a period of 10 minutes, during which the level of stimulation is minimal. It is not a question of sleeping, nor of scrolling on your phone. Simply, do nothing for ten minutes. A real break during the period. learning, during which the brain can go over the brand new memories it has just created and thus better print them in our memory.

Memories 20 times faster

In their work, the researchers used a technique called magnetoencephalography, which measures magnetic fields induced by the electrical activity of neurons in the brain. Thirty volunteers were assigned to type in the sequence of numbers “41324“several times in a row on a keyboard as quickly as possible and with as few mistakes as possible for 10 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest. A process repeated 36 times. During periods of awake pause, the researchers observed a kind of “neuronal replay“for 50 milliseconds, which is 20 times faster than the command to perform. These fast-forward memories were much more numerous during the pauses than before or after the full exercise. Added to that, the re-readings were more many during the first trials than at the end, the more “replay” the better the skill had been learned.

These flashy memories play an important role in the consolidation of new knowledge according to the researchers. This 20 times lower compression compared to the sequence to be learned seems to be optimal according to them. “We believe that at this speed, the brain can link action sequences together to form a single learned skill.“, explains Ethan Buch, neurologist and co-author of the study, to Sciences and the Future. A bit like a poem in which you learn the verses one by one, before linking them all together to recite the entire poem. Add to that, “too much acceleration of memory could eliminate important information about the sequence of action. 20 times faster compression therefore seems balanced. “

It is therefore better to do several learning sessions, interspersed with regular breaks, rather than long sessions in a single block. Even if the underlying mechanism of this phenomenon still remains “elusive“According to Ethan Buch. And nothing to do, therefore, with a sentence that we would deliberately go over in mind several times after having read it to learn it by heart.”This process is very different from “mental rehearsal”, for which there is no time compression. So it’s probably an unconscious process. “

Stable compression, regardless of the sequence to learn

In the works published in Cell, the brain repeated the memories at an advanced speed, about 20 faster than the information to be learned. Does this mean that for a longer exercise to accomplish or a longer sequence to memorize (a long sentence or a long list for example), the neural networks will have to be activated longer to pick up the information quickly? fast ? “Work on spatial memory in animal models suggests that the length of the memory repeat adapts to the length of the action sequence. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that if participants are asked to learn longer sequences, the replay time will also increase. However, we would expect the amount of time compression to remain similar.“, explains Ethan Buch. In short: the brain will continue to go through the sequences about 20 times faster but since the sequence is longer, it should take longer.

On imaging, the brain regions involved in this “time-lapse replay“, the hippocampus and the median temporal cortex, surprised the team.”Traditionally, the hippocampus and the medial temporal cortex have been heavily involved in displacement memory and spatial memory but not in procedural memory which can only be acquired through repeated experience or practice. However, our current findings – and recent findings from other groups – require rethinking this dichotomy and suggest that the hippocampus may play an important role in many types of memory that contain a strong sequencing component.“, explains Ethan Buch. The team is now trying to find out whether this phenomenon of rapid consolidation also has a link with other types of memory. Because beyond teaching us to optimize our work periods, these advances could above all make it possible to to imagine better methods of rehabilitation, a hope for people whose brains have suffered damage or who have suffered a stroke.

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