Why People Who Take Breaks Are Smarter Than Those Who Don’t

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As a stressed out student, employee or entrepreneur, you’re used to cramming in as much learning as you can during crunch time before a big test or presentation. There’s always too much to learn and time seems to always be running out, and when that important moment does come when you need to recall everything you’ve furiously tried to learn the previous day, your memory goes fuzzy — FML.

A new study out from the University of Texas at Austin has a solution for better, smarter learning.

In their study published last month by the National Academy of Sciences, graduate student researcher Margaret Schlichting and psychology and neuroscience professor Alison Preston found that rest and reflection boosted subsequent learning on related material, as well as improving later memory reactivation. In other words, taking a break to think about what you’ve just learned helps you to both learn more and to retain what you’ve learned.

To get to their findings, Schlichting and Preston gave their study’s participants two sets of learning tasks wherein they were asked to memorize different series of associated photo pairs. In between the two sets, the participants were allowed to rest and think about whatever they chose. Using MRI technology, the researchers found that those who utilized the time in between to reflect on what they had learned performed better on later tests that quizzed them on the knowledge they had gained earlier in the day.

In a University of Texas at Austin news release, Preston says:

“We’ve shown for the first time that how the brain processes information during rest can improve future learning. We think replaying memories during rest makes those earlier memories stronger, not just impacting the original content, but impacting the memories to come.”

Taking rest periods in between learning allows your brain to consolidate what you’ve just learned into your long-term memory, and taking the further step of reflecting on what you’ve learned during those rest periods helps you learn more subsequently.

“Nothing happens in isolation,” Preston says. When you are learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”

Applying her findings to a hypothetical teaching situation, Preston says:

“A professor might first get them thinking about the properties of electricity. Not necessarily in lecture form, but by asking questions to get students to recall what they already know. Then, the professor might begin the lecture on neuronal communication. By prompting them beforehand, the professor might help them reactivate relevant knowledge and make the new material more digestible for them.”

So, the next time you’re learning something new and think you’re “working harder” by going non-stop: STOP. Take a break, and allow yourself some time to daydream or to reflect on what you’ve just learned before piling your brain with more info — you’ll see better results because of it.

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