"Down time lets the brain go over experiences it's had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories." - Loren Frank, Assistant Professor, University of California - San Francisco Department of Physiology
Short frequent practice sessions are more effective than long occasional ones. Like many juggling instructors, I recommend that novice jugglers practice for ten minutes a day. A short practice limits the amount of frustration that you experience. It also allows your mind to process what you have just done and make sense of what is happening. I recommend that you end a practice session with a success. If you are planning to practice for ten minutes, but after five minutes you do better than you have ever done before, stop practicing. The last thing that you do is what you remember the best. You want to remember the successful way of doing it rather than a failed attempt. With a new juggling trick I will count the number of successful catches and try to surpass that number. When I succeed, I end that practice session.
When I was a student at Randy Pryor's Wait, Wait, Wait School of Juggling, our class sessions were two-hours long. However we didn't juggle the entire time. We would warm up and then show Randy what we had been practicing. Then he gave us something new to work on. We would work on that for a while, and then we would take a break to socialize with other students. We would return to work, and then after a while Randy would stop everyone for a class discussion. Sometimes we discussed elements of showmanship, but often it turned into more social time. We returned to what we had been working on. Then we would do some group exercises just before the end of class. Those breaks weren't a waste of time. They gave our mind time off to assimilate what we had been trying to do. Often after a pause we experienced a break through in being able to complete a new trick. During the break our subconscious had a chance to process the experience and make important connections.
I read a study that says your memory of a subject is stronger after a ten-minute break than it is immediately at the end of the lesson. (I don't know how they were able to measure that.) That is true only if you take a break. If you go on to another mental task that process is interrupted and doesn't take place.
During my recent trip to Singapore, I studied the history of clowning in Asia by visiting three museums and doing some additional research in the AsianCivilizationMuseum archives. Some of what I found was information that I had heard before, but this time it began to make sense and I understood how things connected together. I think part of what made it so effective is that after visiting each museum I walked back to the hotel. When I was working in the ACM archives I studied for two hours, and then the library closed for an hour long lunch break during which I walked around. I returned and studied for two more hours before walking back to the hotel. I believe that during those walks my subconscious had a chance to process the new information and fit it together with recent information and my memories.
A recent article in the New York Times stated that a problem with portable electronic devices like the Blackberry is they make it possible for people to fill all their available time. This prevents them from having down time to solidify new information in their memories.
Having mental down time is also important for generating new ideas because much of creativity is making new connections between existing ideas. If you are constantly absorbing new information you don't have time to process it and fit it with existing information. I realize some of my best ideas after doing a chore outdoors. Some studies suggest that a break in a natural setting is the most effective.
How can you allow yourself mental down time during and after a lesson? How can you provide mental down time to allow your mind to connect existing ideas into new combinations?