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Water Cooler: Science says take a break

June 25, 2021 Updated Sat., June 26, 2021 at 9:31 p.m.


Those who are sticklers about their break times are not often thought of as the hardest or best workers, but science seems to disagree. The best employee or student is thought of as someone who works through lunch and doesn’t have time for breaks, but it turns out that incorporating breaks into our work flow can greatly improve our ability to focus and learn new things.

A recent study from researchers in the United Kingdom called, “The Impact of Breaks on Sustained Attention in a Simulated, Semi-Automated Train Control Task,” studied 87 university students to analyze the impact of no break and of different types of break on their ability monitor simulated railway lines and ensure they each train was assigned to the correct route.

The control group of students had to focus on the railway lines for 45 minutes straight. The other students who were randomly assigned to take a break would work for 20 minutes, have a five minute break and then continue working for 20 more minutes.

In order to account for the varied ways people spend their break times, some students were asked to refrain from activity during their break, others were told they could spend their break time as they please, and the other students were asked to listen to the Coldplay song, “Clocks” or watch the accompanying music video. The study also noted that, unsurprisingly, all subjects who were able to choose how they spent their break chose to interact with the mobile devices during the five minutes.

Those who weren’t allowed to take a break reported that the task felt harder when compared to the responses from the subjects who were allowed a break period. Students who went without a break also showed lower rates of accuracy when routing the trains to the correct lines.

Not only can breaks improve your accuracy and general performance during a task, they can also help you learn a new skill. General understanding of how the brain processes new information typically asserts that a long period of rest such as a good night’s sleep is what strengthens newly formed memories. Although healthy sleep is instrumental in learning and memory formation, periodic and short breaks during the early stages of the learning process can also be critical in how well your brain retains new information.

A study done in 2019 by the National Institutes of Health recorded the brain waves of subjects who were tasked with watching a screen that displayed a series of numbers and typing the numbers as many times as possible with their left hand for 10 seconds, followed by a 10 second break. This cycle was repeated 35 times.

What surprised the researchers was that the subjects’ brain waves seemed to change the most during the rest periods and that improvements in their typing speed came after the 10 second break, but not during the 10 seconds of typing. The brain waves tended to change to beta rhythms during the rest period, which is unexpected given that beta waves are typically associated with a strongly engaged mind.

The gains in speed were also better with those who took short breaks during the typing tasks rather than subjects who returned the next day to try the task again.

This research challenges our expectations that sustaining laser focus for long periods of times is the best way to work or study, and instead emphasizes the important role breaks can have in our brain’s overall performance.

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