What we know about how the brain learns

Most of us learn new things every day. But in order to really get ahead and do our best work, it helps to put in deliberate effort to learn new information, new skills, and new techniques.

Here’s what we know about how the brain learns, and how that can help us make the best use of our time, no matter what we’re learning.

What we know about how the brain works

Sleep aids learning

While researchers are still struggling to understand sleep fully, one thing we do know is that it helps us learn.

Studies have found sleeping after learning something new improves our performance on a subsequent test. In one study of motor skills, participants who had a full night of sleep after learning a new skill improved by 20.5% when they were tested 12 hours after learning.

Another group of participants who were tested at four-hour intervals without sleeping in-between only improved by 3.9%.

Naps can also work in our favor when taken after learning and before recalling information. One study comparing participants performing the same task with a rest period in-between found those who napped during the rest period improved their performance more than those who didn’t sleep.

When we’re asleep is when our brains do the hard work of collating information we’ve gathered while we’re awake, and moving that information out of short-term memory storage.

Without a sleep period after learning something, our brains lose this chance to consolidate our new knowledge and our learning time is essentially wasted. In fact, sleep deprivation can actually decrease the brain’s ability to absorb new information by nearly 40%.

One study found staying awake for 30 hours after learning something new essentially wasted that learning time entirely. Even if participants had a full sleep after those 30 hours, that long period of staying awake ruined any chance of consolidating the information they’d learned.

Some researchers think of sleep as a way of clearing out the inbox of our minds—a chance to sort through what’s come in while we’ve been awake, and tidy up before new information starts filing in again. Sleep before you learn, then, can be useful in preparing your mind to take on new information.

Moving your body can help you learn

Gestures and body movements are also surprisingly helpful in learning. Research shows children are more likely to learn the names for things they point to, and adults can more easily memorize a string of numbers if they gesture while learning them.

Another study tested the use of gesture on third-graders who were learning math principles. While one group of students physically moved plastic numbers on a whiteboard while learning, another group simply mimed moving the numbers without actually touching them. A third group used their hands to make a gesture like a peace sign to point to either side of an equation while learning to balance the two sides.

Students in both gesture groups were more successful at understanding the general concepts they were learning, and being able to apply those concepts in new situations. University of Chicago psychologist and study author Susan Goldin-Meadow says this shows that using gestures “allows you a space for abstraction. You’re not as tied to the particulars of an item, of a problem, a word, or an experience.”

Other studies focused on full body movements have found them useful in learning new words. Acting out movements, for instance, can help us remember concrete words, such as those related to an action. If you’re learning a foreign language, for instance, and you act out words like run, swim, and dance while you learn their equivalents in your target language, those movements can improve your recall later.

Another study focused on teaching people abstract words while using body movements. After six days of learning abstract words from a made-up language, memory tests showed participants who learned words with gestures were able to recall those words more easily.

So whether you’re acting out what you’re learning or simply gesturing while you learn, getting your body involved could improve how well you recall information later.

Interleaving beats block practice

Most of us are used to learning in a way that’s known as “block practice.” This is the approach that sees you spending half an hour on your tennis serve, or months on solving the same kind of design problems over and over. When you practice the same thing repeatedly, that’s block practice.

And unfortunately, most of us think this is an efficient way to learn, even though research proves it’s not.

A much more effective learning process is interleaving. This strategy has you intersperse skills, techniques, or types of information with one another, so you’re not falling into a rut of learning the same kind of thing over and over. You might mix up the type of design problems you tackle, for instance, or switch between different technologies. For a writer, you might swap between writing fiction, book reviews, and newspaper columns.

According to Robert Bjork, director of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab, interleaving “creates a sense of difficulty. And people tend not to notice the immediate effects of learning.”

Interleaving pushes lots of different skills forward at once, rather pushing one skill after another. Although it’s more efficient in the long-term, it may not feel that way initially.

And the reason it’s so efficient? Bjork says it’s because each new skill or piece of information you learn is “seated” among others. “If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful.” When you’re learning different skills or techniques that are related, interleaving is a more effective way to learn them than block practice.

For all but the youngest learners, Bjork recommends interleaving, because it taps into the brain’s natural tendencies to recognize patterns and detect anomalies. By mixing up what you learn, your brain doesn’t stop paying attention the way it does when you’re doing the same thing over and over. Instead, it’s looking for patterns and detecting outliers all the time, keeping you alert and making stronger connections in your brain about what you’re learning.

When interleaving was tested with seventh-grade math classes, a mixture of block practice and interleaving produced dramatically different results. When students were tested on material they’d learned in the classroom, they averaged 72% correct for problems they’d learned through interleaved practice, and only 38% correct for those learned with block practice.

Interleaving can also keep your learning more engaging over time, as it’s easier to get bored when you’re repeating the same thing over and over. Try mixing up what you’re learning with other skills, techniques, or ideas to ensure your learning time is spent as effectively as possible.

Whether you’re actively trying to upskill or move forward in your career, or you’re just interested in picking up a new hobby in your spare time, learning is a part of every adult’s life. But too many of us fail to understand the best way to learn, and waste countless hours with inefficient practice.

Knowing how important sleep is to taking in new information, how our bodies play a role in leveling up our minds, and how much better we’ll perform when we learn through interleaved practice, we can make better use of our time and energy.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.