How do we learn new skills? Neurons storing a ‘snapshot’ produce proteins that “glue” a blueprint of the snapshot, ready for retrieval.
Researchers in Maryland U.S.A and Tel Aviv, Israel were interested to see how short breaks, (such as momentary daydreaming at work), would affect the memory of a particular online task they were doing at the time. With millions of people working at desks for large corporations, this information on how we learn new skills may significantly impact the efficiency of companies.
The researchers had 27 healthy subjects undergo learning simulations and used magnetic encephalography (MEG) to analyse their brain activity when online and during 10-second breaks. The results of their study were published in Current Biology.
The researchers assigned participants a motor skill task that took time to learn. A pattern of colored keys would appear on a computer monitor and they were expected to press the correct pattern on a set of keys with the same colors. Each finger was assigned one key, for example, key #1 was dedicated to the pinky finger, key #2 was designated to the ring finger, key #3 to the middle finger, and #4 to the index finger. To make this task challenging, participants were told they could only use their non-dominant hand. After the pattern was completed by the participant, the learning tool would respond with a positive feedback system, responding with a star immediately after each key pressed, regardless of whether the participant got it correct or not.
Researchers developed a novel form of analysis where they compared the success of micro-online learning and micro-offline learning
There were 36 trials totaling 12 minutes. Each trial included 10-second breaks between each learning session. How would researchers know if when the learning was occurring? Subjects wore a MEG hat and brain activity was recorded during the whole trial and the frequency of correct responses to the motor-skill task was also recorded. Micro-online learning was compared to micro-offline learning. Because each learning session was only a few seconds long, with tiny, frequent breaks, researchers defined micro-online learning as “the difference in tapping speed between the first and the last correct sequence of a practice period.” Whereas, micro-offline learning was defined as “the difference in tapping speed of the last correct sequence of a practice period and the first correct sequence of the next practice period.”
10 second breaks may be long enough to promote consolidation that improves memory
The MEG scan showed that micro-offline learning (shortly after the ten-second break) was the time in which participants were most likely to reproduce the sequence presented on the screen without mistakes; they were also more likely to do this faster.
With this knowledge, individuals who employ people to perform tasks on computers should consider short, frequent micro-offline periods in the workplace to increase the efficiency of their company.
Written By Nikki Khoshnood, BHSc Candidate
Reference: Bonstrup, M., Iturrate, I., Thompson, R., Cruciani, G., Censor, N., Cohen, G, L., A Rapid Form of Offline Consolidation in Skill Learning. (2018). Current Biology