The Significance of Brain Breaks is Severely Underestimated

To achieve mastery in basketball fundamentals, it’s crucial to practice continuously. For example, you can dribble with your left hand, then switch to your right, and repeat this process repeatedly. The same principle applies to solving differential equations in math; you need to work through them diligently by piling them up.

According to one widely accepted belief, actively and repeatedly manipulating material is essential for skill development. Taking breaks from basketball or math is often seen as a pause in the learning process, a chance to recharge before returning to practice.

However, neuroscientist Leonardo Cohen and his team at the National Institutes of Health challenge this misconception. In a June 2021 study published in the journal Cell, they used magnetoencephalography to observe the brain activity of young adults learning to type with their nondominant hand. After a practice session, the participants took a short break and then continued practicing for a total of 35 sessions.

Upon analyzing the data, Cohen’s team made an intriguing discovery. They observed a spike in brain activity, replicating the neural pattern seen during the practice session but twenty times faster. Instead of remaining idle, the brain replayed the practice session rapidly, transferring the information from the neocortex, where sensory and motor skills are processed, to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. This process occurred more than two dozen times in just 10 seconds. Stepping away from the activity, as it turns out, does not mean disengaging from it completely.

These findings align with the groundbreaking discovery in 2001 that rats replay memories of successfully maneuvering through a maze during REM sleep, activating the same spatial circuitry.

An Insider’s Perspective

According to Cohen, when we learn a new skill, it’s essential to connect it to existing memories, a process known as “binding.” For instance, when learning to play the piano, our brains must link the simple action of pressing a key with the more complex skill of playing a song. Until now, scientists have not fully understood how the brain combines these two distinct actions to form a consolidated skill.

Cohen’s team discovered that after acquiring new information, our brains continue to process, organize, and integrate the learned material during cognitive downtime. They attribute this phenomenon to “neural replay,” which involves the compressed reactivation of neural activity patterns representing behavioral sequences while at rest. In other words, after practicing a skill, our brains swiftly cycle through the experience, compressing and imprinting the material to optimize storage and recall.

Cohen and his colleagues strongly assert that breaks play an underestimated role in learning. Rather than solely focusing on active practice, incorporating breaks into the learning process is just as important. These breaks allow our brains to compress and consolidate memories of what we have recently practiced.

Brain Breaks in the Classroom

According to neurologist and classroom teacher Judy Willis, brain breaks should be implemented before fatigue, boredom, distraction, and inattention start to hinder learning. Willis suggests making these breaks more frequent, stating that concentrated study periods of 10 to 15 minutes for elementary school students and 20 to 30 minutes for middle and high school students should be followed by three- to five-minute breaks.

Brain breaks don’t need to be overly complicated or increase the workload for teachers. Willis recommends simple techniques such as stretching, changing positions within the room, or singing a song to give students time to “replay” what they’ve learned and prepare for more practice or new material. Allowing students to chat informally for a few minutes can also be beneficial.

As the school day progresses, research suggests that brain breaks become even more important. A 2016 study found that “cognitive fatigue” sets in toward the end of the day, leading to a significant decrease in test performance. The researchers discovered that for every hour later in the day, test performance decreased by 0.9 percent of a standard deviation — roughly equivalent to losing 10 school days’ worth of learning. However, incorporating breaks not only prevented this decline but actually improved performance. According to the researchers, breaks recharge students’ cognitive energy, resulting in better test scores.

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