The Spacing Effect: Taking Study Breaks 

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The Spacing Effect

A bizarre education phenomenon named the “spacing effect” is starting to finally make sense now, with help from chocolate-hungry hunting mice.

Over a century ago, researchers revealed that breaking up studying sessions helps you remember what you have learned.

People may have experienced this, and you may have noticed you perform greater on exams by spreading out the times you study instead of cramming it in one all-night study session.

Scientists labelled this phenomenon as “the spacing effect,” although it could never explain why or how study breaks help with better memorization.

The Spacing Effect Study

To fully grasp the spacing effect, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology had given mice three chances to go through a maze and learn the location of the piece of hidden chocolate.

The learning trials times varied between each maze trial— some of the mice were given only 30 seconds between their attempts, and others had to wait up to an hour. Once all the trials were over, the mice were given a day off.

The mice were then given three new opportunities to figure out the maze to find the chocolate — these are considered memory trials.

The Spacing Effect Study Results

Throughout the first three maze trials, the rodents given a 30-second break discovered the chocolate quicker during the second and third maze trials than the mice given longer intervals.

Though, throughout the memory trials, the mice given longer breaks during their learning phase discovered the chocolate faster, the spacing effect.

The mice that received the longer breaks had more unified patterns in their brain activity.

The Unlikely Discovery

To learn how the spacing effect helped the mice recall where the chocolate was hidden, the scientists wrote down the brain activity of the mice well running the experiment.

They found that the neurons firing pattern in the rodents’ brains who received only the short breaks between the trials were inconsistent. For example, they may fire in the first trial then have a different firing pattern during the second and third trials.

The mice who received the longer breaks between learning sessions would display more constant patterns of neural activity, and it was the exact opposite of what the scientists had expected to see.

The Spacing Effect Explanation

This discovery shows that allowing the brain a break between study sessions helps the brain recognize information as familiar.

This allows the brain to fire the same neurons activated the first time it was given the information, improving the memory in the mind.

Although this does not explain precisely why the spacing effect occurs, it does explain some of the unknown reasons for the “how” — and does confirm the need for study breaks.

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Dean Mathers


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