On a physiological level, the process of active studying is basically the remodeling of your brain synaptic connections. When you try to force that 20-page organic chemistry reading into your memory, the neurons residing in the memory region of your brain must maintain a high firing frequency to mediate the synaptic plasticity necessary for learning tasks. Over time, the excess neurotransmitters can start to accumulate around the synapses, and these “dirty” synapses can either dampen or overly excite the connection, resulting in an erratic firing pattern at that synapse. Also, while the amount of energy required for learning is staggering, so is the amount of metabolic wastes products. Many of these metabolic wastes, such as ammonia, can be toxic to the neurons, and may be partially responsible for the “head full of wool” feeling you get after pulling an all-nighter. Therefore, from a physiological perspective, we need to take breaks to give the brain a chance to clean up the dirty synapses and carter away the metabolic waste products.
That explains why for most of us, our “attention span” can usually last about 10-30 minutes. So plan accordingly – for me, I usually study for 25 minutes to and take a 5-minute break, and I would take a long 15-minute break after four 25-minute study sessions. So rather than dragging things into endless library hours that bears more resemblance to a war of attrition than studying, it’s much better to take those much-need breaks your brain needs.
One word of warning though, the whole idea of the break is to give your brain a rest – so while a short walk or just close your eyes and lay back for 5 minutes is totally fine, going on Facebook is more likely to keep on stimulate your brain and defeats the whole purpose of the break.
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