A new German study reveals that taking “mental breaks” can help activate the brain throughout the day. Cramming before an exam provides the perfect example of this. Despite acquiring new knowledge, we tend to forget it as quickly as we learned it. Those who earn the highest scores on exams usually space their learning out over days or even weeks.
The study builds upon this idea that we can activate our brain resting more often. The research published in the journal Current Biology shows that we retain knowledge longer when we expand time intervals between learning. Allowing the brain to “reset” and absorb the knowledge strengthens connections between neurons. In turn, this leads to better performance on tasks.
Called the spacing effect, taking breaks between learning can apply to many facets of life. Regarding school exams, spacing out studying helps you remember more material in the long term. At a desk job, getting up for a few minutes each hour gives your brain a chance to recharge. If you’re working on an art or writing project, taking creative breaks may give you new inspiration or insight.
Just as the body needs rest after a workout, the brain requires breaks from mental exercise. Our minds take quite a beating during daily life, so it’s essential to “power them down” sometimes. We could all benefit from this advice in today’s world, where we suffer from information overload.
The study showing how the spacing effect improves memory
It’s been observed that when we learn, neurons become activated in our brains and form new connections. With repetition, the connections become more robust, and new neural pathways form in the brain. The knowledge then becomes part of our memory that we can retrieve by reactivating these neurons. In other words, when we space out learning, it becomes easier over time to absorb the knowledge.
Our brains can only hold so much information, after all. There’s always a learning curve when exposed to new information, such as at a new job. However, after a few weeks of repeating the same tasks, we start to feel more comfortable. The job gets easier because, from a scientific standpoint, we’re strengthening neural pathways that hold this new knowledge.
These facts about memory have been well-documented, but there’s not much information about how the spacing effect influences the brain. Scientists discovered this phenomenon over a century ago and found it occurs in almost every animal. So, the German scientists wanted to learn more about how pauses between learning activate the brain and memory.
Neurobiologists Annet Glas, Pieter Goltstein, Mark Hübener and Tobias Bonhoeffer investigated the spacing effect in mice. The team placed a piece of chocolate in a maze and gave the mice three opportunities to remember its location. Each time, researchers allowed the mice to explore the maze and find the chocolate, giving them breaks of varying lengths.
Annet Glas says this:
“Mice that were trained with the longer intervals between learning phases were not able to remember the position of the chocolate as quickly. But on the next day, the longer the pauses, the better was the mice’s memory.”
It also proved that taking breaks helps activate the brain.
In addition to observing how the spacing effect influenced memory, scientists measured neural activity in mice. During the maze test, the team measured neuron activity in the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This brain region becomes activated during learning processes and complex thinking tasks. Not surprisingly, scientists found that when the prefrontal cortex wasn’t active, it caused the mice’s performance in the maze to decline.
“If three learning phases follow each other very quickly, we intuitively expected the same neurons to be activated,” Pieter Goltstein says. “After all, it is the same experiment with the same information. However, after a long break, it would be conceivable that the brain interprets the following learning phase as a new event and processes it with different neurons.”
The researchers were all stunned when they reviewed the data and came to a new realization. After comparing neuron activity during various learning phases, they discovered something surprising. When the mice only took short breaks, they primarily activated different neurons in the brain. However, when they took longer breaks, the activation pattern became more stable. In other words, the same neurons activated during the first learning phase became active again during the next one.
In conclusion, the team found that reactivating the same neurons allowed for stronger connections in the brain. This meant that the mice could pick back up where they left off rather than restart the learning process each time. Because the mice learned over a more extended period, the neural pathways got stronger. This process helped activate the brain each time the neurons fired, helping to rewire the pathways gradually.
“That’s why we believe that memory benefits from longer breaks,” says Pieter Goltstein.
Final thoughts on how spacing out learning improves cognitive function
We’ve probably all crammed for an exam the night before a test, only to flunk or barely pass, to our dismay. If you ever wondered why this happens, now you have your answer. According to this revolutionary research, it seems that our brains can’t process that much information so quickly. According to the German study, spacing out learning helps activate the brain and rewire neural pathways more effectively.
So, after more than a hundred years, the study provides much-needed information about how neural processes affect learning. If we space out learning, it helps our brains retain the information for a longer time period. Of course, this comes with the cost of taking longer to learn the task or knowledge. But, it benefits us in the end because the knowledge sticks with us rather than going in one ear and out the other.
Hopefully, this study will lead to better ways of learning in the future. In our society, we always seem to want more, faster, without regard for consequences. This research, however, provides more evidence that slow and steady always wins in the long term.