University students are made well aware of the importance of having a consistent sleep schedule, and the role that high quality sleep plays in cognitive performance. But how can shorter breaks improve memory? Are rest periods of just a few seconds long enough to be effective?

In the experiment, participants typed a sequence of 5 numbers as quickly as possible in a 10-second period, and this was alternated with 10-second breaks. Along with collaborators, Ethan Buch, a scientist at the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, utilized the neuroimaging technique of magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure brain activity in participants while they were engaged in the experimental task. This technique allows for sampling of brain activity at the millisecond scale.

As the authors report in their research paper, breaks as brief as 10 seconds, interspersed into the learning or training of a new skill, can lead to better memory consolidation. Specifically, this interspersed-break structure was associated with a four-fold difference in consolidation compared to sessions that involved only overnight sleep periods of 6-8 hours that did not incorporate breaks into learning sessions.

These results are applicable to the learning of skills such as playing a new musical instrument, but can also be applied in rehabilitative settings for patients with brain injuries such as stroke, and for students with learning disabilities. By applying this interspersed-break strategy in conjunction with an external brain stimulation device, Buch speculates that this strategy’s memory-enhancing effects could be amplified further when applied to those with neurological disabilities.

Incorporating mini-breaks of as little as 10 seconds into learning may also enhance memory for students who are studying for an upcoming exam. The proposed mechanism is that brain activity (whatever is being rehearsed and brewing in one’s active working memory, whether a procedural skill or a science concept) is amplified and sped up during the short break, which can ultimately lead to greater levels of performance with fewer errors.

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This post was written by Linda H