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Learn More By Taking a Break ... But From What?

Breaks consolidate learning. But are they better than studying more?

This post is in response to
One Key to Having a Good Memory? Knowing When to Rest

New research shows that taking a break after learning something helps you remember in a long term. Like many of my colleagues I think this finding is very exciting. But it would be easy to over-interpret.

The finding

I won't repeated the findings in detail because they've been explained well here and here. But here are the two conditions that the researchers compared.

  1. Study something -then- do nothing for 10 minutes
  2. Study something -then- do an unrelated task that keeps you occupied for 10 minutes

Condition 1 allows our brains to consolidate new memories. Because they're strong and consolidated, memories in the first condition were more memorable a week later.

The wrong conclusion

So, do breaks actually help us learn more than continuing to study would? Should you stop studying periodically and take a break? Not based on these findings. Here are conditions you'd want to compare before drawing that conclusion.

  1. Study something -then- do nothing for 10 minutes
  2. Study something -then- keep studying for 10 minutes
  3. Study something -then- study something else for 10 minutes

If the first condition is better than the other two, on a test of long term memory, then by all means replace study time with breaks. Otherwise, taking a break is not necessarily the best way to study. So far we haven't seen these three conditions compared. The best plan may be to study the same amount as you did before, but with breaks interspersed.

The right conclusion

I do think there's news you can use in these findings. With the advent of smart phones we now have the ability to distract ourselves through every boring moment. Walking from the library to class? Check your email. Going to bed? Check Facebook. Going to the bathroom? Get on words with friends. Picking your nose for a second? Whip out that phone.

For some of us, smart phones mean that we have no downtime anymore. Yes they're addicting. And yes, sometimes we cross the street without looking. But this new research raises a different danger.

Downtime helps us remember as long as it is not filled with distracting unrelated tasks. Twitter, Facebook, email, etc., are distracting unrelated tasks. If you want to retain your knowledge, you have to let your mind rest. Even if it's boring. Maybe boredom is the new black.

It's not just about studying either. If this research is right, having downtime will allow you to consolidate memories of what's happening in your life as well. If you want to remember your own autobiography, you better put down that phone once in a while.

In defense of the phone, you can learn a ton from Twitter, email, Facebook etc. But there's a balance to be struck. It's also important to realize that sleep is the best time to consolidate new memories. If really want to remember, get some sleep.

The bottom line

Taking a break helps your memories consolidate. But don't replace study time with breaks just yet. I doubt that will be helpful, but it's an empirical question and we don't have the data yet. What seems clear is that breaks help memories consolidate. Putting down that phone for a while might help you remember.

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Dewar, M. et al. (2012). Brief Wakeful Resting Boosts New Memories Over the Long Term. Psychological Science

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