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Do you feel scattered, distracted and too tired to accomplish simple tasks? Are the kids sluggish, cranky or more hyperactive than usual? These can be symptoms of cognitive fatigue which is on the upswing around the world.
Sustained cognitive engagement taxes mental resources which leads to burnout and poor information processing and that leads to impaired decision making.
Whether you are learning a new skill or just need a rest to re-energize, your brain needs time to process and solidify new information.
Leonardo Cohen, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, used magnetoencephalography, a highly sensitive brain-scanning technique, to observe the neural activity of young adults during practice and during breaks as they learned how to type with their nondominant hand. Analysis of the data revealed a spike in brain activity during the breaks that mimicked the neural pattern seen during practice but compressed by twenthyfold. The brain was replaying the practice session at high speed and flipping the information from the neocortex, where sensory and motor skills are processed to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.
There’s wisdom in the expression “I’ll sleep on it.” Cohen explains, “We found that brief segments of awake sequential experience were replayed in the hippocampus at high speed during slow-wave sleep, following awake behavior revealing the early processing of sequential event memory during this sleep period,” The amount of slow wave sleep early in the night, as well as the amount of REM sleep later in the night, is correlated with subsequent enhancement of performance on learned tasks.
Even short breaks during intense activity can have a positive effect. In the classroom, “Brain breaks should take place before fatigue, boredom, distraction and inattention set in,” writes neurologist and classroom teacher Judy Willis, and that means they should be far more frequent. “As a general rule,” Willis continues, basing her conclusions on decades of research, “concentrated study of 10 to 15 minutes for elementary school and 20 to 30 minutes for middle- and high-school students calls for a three- to five-minute break.”
Willis recommends simple techniques, such as stretching, moving to a different part of the room, singing a song; even just chatting gives students time to “replay” what they’ve learned and to prepare them for more practice or new material.
As the school day progresses, brain breaks become increasingly important. Researchers in Denmark analyzed student performance on the National Tests (like standardized tests in the U.S.). They found that cognitive fatigue sets in toward the end of the day, leading to a notable drop in test performance. Findings suggest that as the day progresses there is a small but significant decline in test performance each hour, roughly the equivalent of losing 10 school days’ worth of learning. Incorporating breaks of 20 to 30 minutes, however, not only eliminated the decrease but increased performance. Researchers Hans Henrik Sievertsen, Francesca Gino and Marco Piovesan suggest that this information is important for making policy decisions related to the length of the school day and the frequency and duration of breaks throughout the day. In addition, they suggest that school accountability systems should control for the influence of external factors on test scores.
Take that nap and make no apologies!
Rorie Measure is president emeritus of Children's Reading Alliance, a grassroots initiative to encourage family literacy throughout Doña Ana County. She is a reader, writer, teacher, reading specialist and literacy trainer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.