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A few weeks ago, my 12-year old got hooked on a Japanese anime centered around volleyball, in which one of the main characters shares his last name. Needless to say, this has led to a sudden enthusiasm for jumping.

I now hear him jump and crash about in his room randomly throughout the day. And he’s been running up and down the block, jumping and spiking the low-hanging leaves on all the trees in our neighborhood. And he even started an online program that’s supposed to increase your vertical jump in 3 months.

At first, he wanted to train every day, multiple times a day. But this program puts a major emphasis on rest. Not only are there days between workouts, but there is a full week of rest after each 3-week cycle, before you’re allowed to test your vertical again.

Indeed, whether it’s jumping higher, running faster, or lifting heavier, recovery seems to be a crucial ingredient in maximizing gains. Yet because it can be fun to obsess about how many sets and reps to do, or which exercises are best, we can easily get sucked down the YouTube rabbit hole and focus too much on optimizing the workout, at the expense of optimizing recovery. Even though it’s during sleep, and the hours between workouts, that the greatest gains take place.

Hmm…so are there things we could be doing between practice sessions to help maximize our gains? Like, what is the learning-enhancing equivalent of a post-workout protein smoothie?

Sleep and naps?

Well, research suggests that sleep or a strategically-timed nap can enhance learning in various ways (e.g. as we previously explored here).

But sleep takes time, and napping can present some logistical challenges. I mean, zonking out while studying in the university library is socially acceptable, but falling asleep while studying at Starbucks? Maybe not so much…

So what else could we do, when sleep or naps aren’t an option?

Story time!

A team of researchers recruited 19 older adults (ages 61-87) for a study on memory.

Each participant was told that they would be listening to a short story, and immediately afterwards, be asked to recall as many details of the story as possible.

After participants completed the storytime/recall session, some (the wakeful-resting group) were given 10 minutes to sit quietly and chill in a darkened room, with their eyes closed, while the experimenter prepared the next story.

Meanwhile, the other participants (the spot-the-difference group) spent 10 minutes playing a game in which they were presented with pairs of pictures and instructed to point out the subtle differences between the nearly-identical photos (the idea being, to keep the participants’ attention busy with a new, unrelated task).

Immediately after the first round of stories, participants participated in a second round of storytelling/recall, and once again either rested quietly for 10 minutes or played the spot-the-difference game.

Immediate recall

When asked to recall the story right after hearing it, participants were able to recall about 15 of the 25 total key story elements.

But unbeknownst to the participants, the experiment wasn’t really about testing their listening and immediate recall skills. It was about long-term memory, and seeing how much they’d remember a full week later, with no further practice.

Pop quiz!

So seven days later, everyone returned for a second session. But instead of hearing new stories, the participants were given a surprise recall test, and asked to describe as many details as they could remember from the stories they heard the previous week.

Both groups exhibited some forgetting, of course. But the participants who were given quiet time to let the new material “sink in,” remembered significantly more key details from the stories than those who were distracted by a new task immediately after the storytelling session.

Specifically, the wakeful-resting group recalled about 11 out of 25 story elements, while the spot-the-difference group remembered only about 9 out of 25 elements.

Or in other words, the quiet time group was able to retain about 70% of the material they took in from the initial reading, while the move-onto-something-new-immediately group retained about 60% of the material they took in.

But did they…?

But did any of the participants “cheat?” That is to say, did any of them think about the stories during the 10-minute rest period, or during the week, potentially boosting their memory of the stories?

Well, yes, a few did report thinking about the stories during quiet time or during the week. But this didn’t seem to make much of a difference, as their recall performance was no different than those who had not thought about the stories.

Hmm…so what is it about post-learning “wakeful rest” that seems to give our memory a boost?

Giving memories a chance to “set”

Well, functional MRI studies1 suggest that our brains are actually still engaged in learning-related processes during these quiet moments after learning something new. Even if we’re not consciously rehearsing the material we’ve just studied.

And since our memory of the new material we’ve learned is still somewhat “fragile” at the outset, moving onto new tasks immediately after learning appears to cause a bit of interference and keep the memory from “setting” as effectively.

Like continuing to jiggle jello water around in the fridge before it’s had a chance to solidify.

Caveats

Learning a story may not be exactly the same as learning a new tune by ear, or memorizing a new movement of solo Bach.

But they aren’t entirely dissimilar either, and studies of musicians suggest that sleep does play a role in “offline learning” – i.e. the learning that occurs in the time between practice sessions.

Like in this one (that also speaks to the fragility of our memory of newly learned music). Or as illustrated in this simple memory-enhancing scheduling hack (which makes much more sense now in light of these other studies).

Take action

So while it may be tempting to go directly from the practice room to email, a podcast, or whatever is next on your to-do list, the more productive move in the long run may be to press pause after learning something new. To prioritize the transition between tasks with a short 5-10 min post-practice walk, a bit of stretching, or a dose of some of that “wakeful rest,” so the new material can sink in a little more effectively.

And come to think of it, this seems kind of reminiscent of how important it is musically to make sure we’re not clipping notes or shortchanging rests, as illustrated by that quote often attributed to Debussy – “Music is the space between the notes.”

Footnotes

  1. Like this one