Here's an Easy Way to Help Your Brain Learn Faster

Here’s an Easy Way to Help Your Brain Learn Faster

Have a ton of rep to learn, and not much time?

You’ve heard the old adage “practice makes perfect.”

And you’ve probably heard the saying “perfect practice makes perfect.”

That’s all fine and dandy, but both imply that motor learning occurs only during practice. That how we practice – our practice strategies, methods, and techniques – are the primary determinant of how quickly we improve.

Those things do matter greatly, of course.

But it turns out that there are other factors that contribute to motor learning too (wait…what?!).

For instance, researchers have found that learning actually continues for at least 24 hours after you have stopped practicing. In fact, a number of studies have found significant gains in performance 24 hours later – even with no further practice. 

Hmm…how can this be? And what are the implications? Is this something we can optimize – is there something we can do to maximize the learning that takes place after we leave the practice room?

Let’s take a look.

A 20.5% improvement in 12 hours

So how is it that we continue to improve even when we’re not practicing? Do things simply settle in with time? Or does sleep have something to do with it?

A team of neurophysiologists at Harvard conducted a study to see if they could answer this question.

They trained 62 participants in a finger tapping task. Each participant received 12 30-second training trials, and then were tested to see how effectively (based on speed and accuracy) they could reproduce this sequence.

Group A received their training at 10am, and were re-tested every 4 hours (at 2pm, 6pm, and 10pm). There was no meaningful change to speak of. Basically just some minor improvement likely resulting from the continued repetitions at each re-test.  

Group B was also trained at 10am, and tested 12 hours later at 10pm, and again at 10am the next day. They showed a non-significant 3.9% improvement in performance when tested at 10pm. But when tested at 10am after a night of sleep, they demonstrated an 18.9% improvement relative to their scores 24 hours prior (with no decrease in accuracy), and 14.4% relative to their scores the night before.

To make sure it was actually the sleep that contributed to this improvement in scores, and not simply the extra time, another group was trained and tested at 10pm, then 10am, and 10pm the following day. These participants demonstrated a 20.5% improvement from 10pm to 10am. And only a 2% improvement from 10am to 10pm.

So it’s not just the passage of time, but actual sleep, that seems to have an impact on the learning of motor skills.

Of course, this is just a study of a bunch of college kids learning some contrived motor skill task in a lab. Is this really applicable to musicians?

Sleep = fewer mistakes

Amy Simmons and Robert Duke (learn more about Dr. Duke via this violinist.com article) conducted a study of 75 music majors at the University of Texas – Austin, all with 2 years of experience in piano class.

Each learned to play a tricky 12-note melody, and were instructed to play the melody as “quickly and accurately” as possible, using the fingerings specified in the music.

Like the Harvard study, there were multiple groups, some which were tested after periods of sleep, and others which were tested without sleeping in between.

The results were consistent with the other research in this area – and a little more illustrative of how this relates to musicians. 

Unlike the Harvard study, where gains were made primarily in speed, accuracy was the factor that improved most in the musician study.

Participants made fewer errors when tested after having had a period of sleep between tests. And no, they didn’t just play slower in order to make fewer mistakes.

Why didn’t speed improve?

The researchers noted that participants appeared to find a particular tempo that made sense to them given the particular way in which the melody was written, and didn’t seem that intent on playing the passage above that tempo – even when accuracy no longer seemed to be an issue.

Makes sense, right? As music majors, they all probably had a pretty good sense of what the “right” tempo for a particular passage ought to be.

How much sleep is enough?

So how much sleep do we need to see benefits?

A recent study by researchers at Brown gives us some clues.

They set out to identify what exactly happens in the brain during sleep that contributes to this performance improvement.

One group of participants were trained in a finger tapping task (somewhat akin to typing or playing a keyboard). Then they were allowed to sleep for 3 hours, at which point researchers woke them up.

An hour later, they were tested on the tapping task.

A control group did not get to sleep after learning the task, but were simply tested 4 hours after the training.

As in the other studies, those who slept performed the task faster and more accurately.

There are several cool things about the study, but two takeaways are:

  1. Three hours seems to be enough to observe the beneficial effect of sleep on motor skill improvement. Might more than 3 hours be more helpful? It’s not certain what the optimal “dose” of sleep might be.
  2. However, the researchers were able to identify the exact phase of sleep that seems to be responsible for the associated performance improvements. Namely, deep sleep. That’s the phase of sleep when you’re totally zonked out and it’s really difficult to wake you up (and is, interestingly, the phase when sleepwalking occurs). It takes some time to get into deep sleep, so a quick 20 minute nap is probably not long enough to produce these performance improvements.

Take action

So is the big takeaway that we should sleep? But…how is that helpful? We’re all going to sleep eventually.

Here’s one way we might be able to apply these findings.

A student recently told me a story about a time when he had only 7 days left to prepare for a concert, and was getting really stressed out about it until he realized he could turn 7 days into 14 days.

How?

He practiced in the morning for 3 hours. Slept for 3 hours. Then did 3 more hours of practicing later in the day. In essence, turning each day into two days.

He was half-joking when he said this, but given the research above, perhaps there’s something to this strategy after all!

photo credit: london_lime via photopin cc

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Comments

  1. says

    This is really fascinating stuff!

    Sleep really plays a major role in consolidating a new information into long-term memory. I’ve read somewhere that for greatest effect it is best to sleep within four hours of practice.

    Another cool application could be to revise the new material just before going to bed.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Anthony W says

    That “practice for three hours, sleep for three hours, practice for three hours” might just be brilliant. I’d love to see someone test that in a lab with music students – alongside some refinements for time. three hours seems like a lot – something like an hour or an hour and a half might be sufficient to get the deep sleep required.

    • Leo says

      Nope : you need DEEP sleep. So you need one or two full cycle of sleep.
      A cycle takes 90 to 120 minutes.
      If you have short cycles you may not have enough deep sleep, so better take 2 cycles (3 hours, or 4 if you make 2 hours-cycles)

      • says

        Leo,

        Did I fail another math exam? If you’re quoted low end cycle is 90 minutes, doesn’t that equal a cycle of 1.5 hours? If so, Anthony W’s hypothesis seems valid.

        Yes, I know, each person’s sleep requirements are different, but we have to start somewhere to define what we need. Perhaps further research is needed to validate or repudiate Anthony W’s hypothesis.

  3. Nancy says

    As a 52 yr old ‘come back’ trumpeter I have found that if I really wood shed a passage, work it as far as I can go, when I come back to it the next day it often settles in and starts to really click. I love how this happens.

  4. John L Brown says

    I’m sorry, but I’m somewhat confused about the Austin study where the 75 music majors were instructed to learn and play a tricky 12-note melody, “and were to play the melody as “quickly and accurately” as possible, using the fingerings specified in the music.” Instead, “The researchers noted that participants appeared to find a particular tempo that made sense to them given the particular way in which the melody was written, and didn’t seem that intent on playing the passage above that tempo – even when accuracy no longer seemed to be an issue.” This last comment seems to imply that the students could, but choose not to play the melody faster, therefore consciously and deliberately ignoring part of their instruction. I didn’t read the study yet, so perhaps missed some relevant information. If my observation is clear then that raises the question, “what compelled these music students to adhere to their own particular tempos, rather than play the melody as quickly and accurately as possible? I offer this for your consideration.

    • says

      Yes, this was an observation and proposed explanation for what they thought may have happened.

      Musically speaking, the figure is a relatively simple one, but given the way in which it is written, with slurs and rests, it does imply a certain range of appropriate tempos within which it could be played. If it were an uninterrupted string of 12 random notes, I imagine that participants might have been more inclined to focus on maximizing speed rather than playing it like a musical phrase.

  5. Oliver Kot says

    I’ve also found that intense cardio exercise helps accuracy. For example, running up twenty flights of stairs in 5 minutes.

  6. says

    I love the cat picture!

    I feel like I practice better in the morning when I am not as tired. Perhaps, I am improving more when I practice in evening just a few hours before going to sleep.

  7. says

    As someone who struggles with getting enough sleep, I can definitely say that 3 hours might be sufficient to measure improvement if you got 7-8 hours the night before. However, if I regularly get anything less than 6 hours, I get diminishing returns for practice, and at around 5 hours of sleep each night for even a week, virtually all the practice does is make sure I don’t get any worse. Anything less than 5 hours of sleep and I am probably hurting myself by practicing, either literally with the increased chance of injury when playing tired, or because the repetitions will be too sloppy to be doing any good.

    • Janis says

      I tend to agree — this is the sort of thing that can’t always be applied realistically to actual humans. In reality, for many of us, we don’t just climb into bed and press the button marked “sleep.” We get it when we can, as well as we can.

      And I need to ask other commenters to please not make dumb suggestions like, “Relax!” “Just let your mind wander!” “Take a bath beforehand!” or “Try warm milk!” Believe me, people who struggle with sleep have tried all that horseshit. It doesn’t work, any of it. Just wanted to head off the well-meaning but clumsy suggestions. :-)

      • says

        Nevermind the canned advice, but have you tried melatonin? I though it was utterly bizzare that this sleep hormone is naturally produced in your eyes and is directly effected by light. As someone who has struggled with sleep for the last 2 decades, its the only remedy that results in deep natural sleep for me since it’s usually being under produced or over absorbed in insomniacs like myself. I only take 1/4 of the 1mg tab and got rid of all blue-white light sources after 8pm. If you take it and then watch TV or sit in a bright room you’re basically undoing the effect. Now I get at least 6.5 hrs / night reliably. More if I sleep in, which is only possible because of the melatonin. My big problem is staying asleep rather than falling asleep, the opposite of my girlfriend, but taking melatonin orally works for her too. Of course, you can try regulating the melatonin cycle just by controlling light exposure and using only dim orange-yellow lights after the sun goes down, and then getting bright natural sunlight in your eyes shortly after waking in the morning.

      • says

        Different things work for different people, Janis. If you are more interested in finding what works for you, you might spend less time writing invectives, expletives, and derisive responses.

        I was recieving updates on this thread via email, but your abuse of another poster changed my interest in it. Just my opinion but I’m not longer interested in yours.

        • says

          Read her comment more closely, she wasnt abusing anyone, just trying to preempt the usual stream of well-meaning advice that follows these kinds of comments. Advice that usually makes insomniacs feel even more cursed because these simple remedies actually work for “normal” people. Also bear in mind that all insomniacs are a little irritable from being sleep deprived for months, years, or even decades. Any edge in their tone is hardly something to be taken personally.

  8. says

    Fascinating stuff! This is something I’ve known just from my own experiences, but haven’t heard the science to back it up. Thanks for the in depth article!

    My favorite example of this that I like to tell students was when I was in high school I had to memorize a Shakespeare Sonnet. I had very little time to do it, so I made it into a song, recorded it, and played it over and over that night as well as the next morning. Sure enough I passed the test, not only that, I still remember it today.

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