Did you know that taking breaks are a brain-based method for better learning?
Despite all the drawbacks of virtual learning, it also allows you more opportunities to take brain-friendly breaks that you wouldn’t be able to in school.
Knowing how to increase your productivity by taking brain-friendly breaks can give you an advantage during virtual learning!
So, first things first, let’s take a look at how and why taking breaks benefits your learning overall.
Benefits of Learning Breaks
Have you ever crammed for an exam only to realize that there’s a lot you don’t remember afterwards?
Or even if you did, that you forgot huge chunks of what you learned a couple of days later?
This is because learning in stretches like this isn’t a brain-friendly way of learning.
The Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting explains why this happens.
The curve shows how, the longer the gap between the beginning and end of a learning session, the more likely people are to forget what they learned in the middle.
Why does this happen?
When you’re learning something, your brain is using its working memory.
Your hippocampus, an important part of your brain involved in memory and learning, temporarily holds on to information you’re absorbing and processing in that moment. Here, it waits to connect with what you already know.
This is a crucial part of long-term memory formation – what you’re learning creating associations with what you already know is how your brain learns best.
However, the hippocampus is only able to store a limited amount of information at any given time. Your working memory therefore has limited capacity.
If you end up overwhelming your working memory, you tend to forget what you’re learning more easily. It’s like trying to cup flowing water with your hands.
On the other hand, neuroscientists find that by taking a short break of just five minutes not only helps restore your working memory to full capacity, but also helps form long-term memory.
This is because, while you’re taking this break, your brain is in default mode. Because it’s no longer concentrating on learning new information, it’s free to wander. It goes over what you learned and what you already know and creates connections that last longer in your memory as a result.
Have you ever had an “aha!” moment while doing something like brushing your teeth, or making a cup of coffee?
This is why. Just because your brain isn’t focusing on anything in particular doesn’t mean that it’s not working, learning and creating memories.
So, not only do breaks help keep your working memory at optimum levels, they’re also an important part of the process by which your brain learns and recalls information.
Scientists recommend study sessions of 20 to 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break to help your brain absorb and retain information efficiently.
And while you can’t always take breaks whenever you need them in school, you do have more flexibility when you’re at home.
Let’s take a look at some of the best ways to take brain breaks during virtual learning!
5 Best Brain Breaks for Virtual Learning
1. Rest Your Eyes
With remote learning, you’re spending a lot of time on your screen.
Your eyes are one of your brain’s most direct and critical sources of input. You’re constantly using your eyes when learning.
And when you’re spending a long time on your screen, your eyes and the muscles and nerves around it are working overtime to keep your brain updated.
When you’re intensively using your eyes for a stretch of time, you might be experiencing symptoms like blurry vision, heavy or irritated eyes, and headaches.
The muscles around your eyes and even around your face might be tensed up from extensive use, and without enough rest, might develop into aches, discomfort, and fatigue.
Also, when you’re focusing on something for an extended time, you might end up blinking less, which leads to your eyes drying up and causing irritation.
Because virtual learning involves so much time spent on your screen, it’s very important to give your eyes enough rest to recover throughout the day.
One simple way you can do this is through palming.
Simply cover your eyes with your hands, with enough distance between your palms and eyelids to not drag at and further irritate the area.
Cup your fingers over your closed eyes in such a way that it blocks out the light as much as possible. If wherever you’re sitting is too bright, you could switch off the lights or move to a darker room, too.
Doing this for three to four minutes not only gives your eyes a chance to rest and refresh themselves, but also helps your brain learn more effectively by taking a brain-friendly break!
2. Meditate with Focused Breathing
While relaxing your eyes, you could also do a few simple breathing exercises.
Meditation has science-proven benefits of resetting your mind and body and shifting you into the ideal state for learning.
When you are stressed and anxious, you might have noticed that your breathing tends to be more shallow and rapid.
Your heart beats faster, palms get sweaty, and you generally feel uncomfortable and unable to focus.
This is because your sympathetic nervous system, which influences these parts of your body, is active.
While you can’t control your heartrate or blood pressure, you can control your breathing.
And fortunately, this helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which has the opposite effect to your sympathetic nervous system.
When you breathe slowly and deeply, your brain detects the change and sends signals to your vagus nerve, which is a part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
This starts off a chain reaction throughout this system. Slow, focused breathing in turn helps slow down your heart, reduce blood pressure, ease muscle tension, and so on.
When you breathe slowly and deeply, your brain switches into one of the four brain wave states, the alpha wave state.
In this state, you are calm but also alert and focused.
So, spending five minutes on focused breathing, by just breathing in deeply for 4 counts, holding it in, and breathing out for 4 counts, and repeating this several times, puts you in the most ideal state for learning.
You not only give your brain a chance to restore working memory and consolidate what you were learning, but you also prepare your mind and body for more effective new learning!
3. Get Some Exercise
In school, you might have had to move from room to room to get to class.
You might have been walking to school or at least to the bus stop every day.
You may have been taking part of afterschool activities like sports which involved getting some amount of exercise.
With virtual learning, you’re spending far more time at home, and definitely far more time seated in front of a screen.
Not only is this lack of exercise bad for your overall health, but it’s bad for your learning, too.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean an hour at the gym. Simply walking around the block or back and forth in your room for a few minutes can help, too!
When you are physically active, your blood is pumping faster.
You are breathing deeper, meaning there’s more oxygen in the fast-moving blood in your system reaching your brain.
As a result, your brain works more efficiently and quickly. It creates connections between information faster, and even develops structurally, thanks to the increased supply of oxygen-rich blood.
This is why, after a quick run or some stretches, you might notice you feel more alert and clear-headed, able to concentrate on learning better.
Not only this, but you might also notice that you feel more motivated to learn, and in a better mood, too.
This is because exercising activates chemical messengers like endorphins and dopamine in your system, which give your mood and motivation a boost!
4. Catch Some Zs
Sleeping in class is definitely something you weren’t encouraged to do in school.
But guess what? Sleep is actually a necessary part of learning and creating long-term memory!
Studies show that even taking a short nap can help improve exam scores, compared to not getting enough rest, or pulling all-nighters.
This is because, even when you’re sleeping, your brain is active.
Your hippocampus and neocortex sift through what you learned throughout the day, make sense of it, and cement it into your long-term memory while you sleep.
As a result, when you don’t get enough sleep, and your brain doesn’t get the chance to carefully process what you were learning the day before, you might end up forgetting more the next day.
Not only that, but not getting enough sleep negatively impacts parts of your brain like your amygdalae, which regulates your mood and memory.
Those who don’t get enough sleep tend to experience more negative emotions and feel muddled, irritable and tired the next day.
Not getting enough sleep also means your dopamine levels the next day aren’t high enough.
Dopamine, as I mentioned earlier, is a chemical messenger that boosts your concentration and motivation. In fact, it’s known as the motivation molecule.
So, if the morning after an all-nighter, you’re unable to focus, learn and remember, and find yourself in a bad mood, this is why.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep at night – and even reward yourself with a short nap after you’ve covered enough 20 to 25-minute study sessions!
5. Sip Some Green Tea
Are you a coffee or tea person?
Both contain caffeine, and caffeine is similar to adenosine, the compound responsible for making you feel drowsy.
Because of this similarity, caffeine interferes with the work of adenosine and keeps you alert and awake to concentrate on learning.
However, drinking too much coffee can have harmful side-effects.
You might end up experiencing withdrawals, where without a certain degree of caffeine in your system you get headaches, feel drowsy or in general feel irritable and stressed.
Coffee can also make feelings of anxiety and stress worse and give you the jitters.
This is why I recommend green tea instead. I personally prefer organic, ceremonial grade matcha, because of its natural concentration of the amino acid l-theanine.
L-theanine gives your dopamine and serotonin levels a natural boost – it helps wake you up, keep you alert, motivated and in a good mood, while at the same time keeping you relaxed and calm.
In fact, l-theanine can actually help reduce the activity of the chemical messengers which are stressing you out.
Just like waking up after getting enough sleep and focused breathing, l-theanine helps you slip into the alpha brain wave state – which you now know is the perfect state for learning!
And unlike coffee, thanks to the relaxing effect of l-theanine, you might even experience better sleep.
So, why not take a break after your half-hour of studying to brew and enjoy a nice, relaxing cup of tea?
Which of these 5 best brain breaks for virtual learning are you trying out first? I’d love to know how they work for you!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.
Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, such as Total Recall Learning™.
She is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!