“Everyone thinks you need to ‘practice, practice, practice’ when learning something new. Instead, we found that resting, early and often, may be just as critical to learning as practice,” said Leonardo G. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and a senior author of the paper published in the journal Current Biology. “Our ultimate hope is that the results of our experiments will help patients recover from the paralyzing effects caused by strokes and other neurological injuries by informing the strategies they use to ‘relearn’ lost skills.”
The study was led by Marlene Bönstrup, M.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Cohen’s lab. Like many scientists, she held the general belief that our brains needed long periods of rest, such as a good night’s sleep, to strengthen the memories formed while practicing a newly learned skill. But after looking at brain waves recorded from healthy volunteers in learning and memory experiments at the NIH Clinical Center, she started to question the idea.
The waves were recorded from right-handed volunteers with a highly sensitive scanning technique called magnetoencephalography. The subjects sat in a chair facing a computer screen and under a long cone-shaped brain scanning cap. The experiment began when they were shown a series of numbers on a screen and asked to type the numbers as many times as possible with their left hands for 10 seconds; take a 10 second break; and then repeat this trial cycle of alternating practice and rest 35 more times. This strategy is typically used to reduce any complications that could arise from fatigue or other factors.