It’s no secret that mental downtime can help your career–a little distance can help you gain perspective and perhaps even solve a problem once you switch focus. But a new study appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that taking a break and reflecting on what you’ve learned in the past can actually help you learn something new in the future.
“No learning experience is in isolation,” says Alison Preston, a psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the study. Rather, learning is often built by using information one already knows that’s related to new information. Fast Company spoke with Preston about her research, and how these findings can help leaders better train and develop their employees.
Previously, researchers thought prior memories would interfere with new learning. However, Preston and her team believed that replaying memories during breaks actually strengthens those memories and positively impacts future learning. They embarked on a series of studies aimed to find out what might be percolating in our brains when we’re not actively learning.
In the study, participants were asked to memorize different sets of photo pairs and, between tasks, think about whatever they wished. Their brain activity was measured by MRI scans. Researchers found the participants who used their reflection time to think about what they’d learned performed better on later tests when learning something new.
The findings suggest that reliving an experience can help people learn new things. For example, if you want to implement a new reporting process within your team, Preston suggests first asking team members to describe how they currently complete their reports.
“Don’t review for them,” she cautions, let the team recall the information themselves and write down the steps for how they create a report. Once you have a foundation and framework that’s familiar to your employees, that they already understand, you can teach the new information. “By having them reactivate knowledge, [new learning] might stick a bit better,” Preston says.
Another takeaway from the study is the importance of allowing people to take time to consciously reflect on what they’ve learned. Taking a 10-minute study break or getting a cup of coffee is ideal–anything that lets them sit quietly and think. But don’t get distracted with tasks during the reflective period, Preston says. That means no fiddling with phones, bathroom breaks, or chatting with colleagues.