We’ve all experienced the frustration of being in a mental rut. Whether you’re trying to think of a solution to a crossword puzzle, remember your grocery list, or write your dissertation, you’ve probably experienced the annoyance of trying to solve a problem with no avail, only to have the solution pop into your head later in an idle moment, like in the shower. In fact, Albert Einstein famously credited his Theory of Relativity to a revelation he had while chatting with a friend after weeks and weeks of working on his theorem.
Why do we often gain insight when stop trying? It may seem counterintuitive, but giving up when something is difficult can be beneficial, and even necessary, to help new ideas come to light. This is because taking a break makes you forget, which, oddly enough, is sometimes essential for learning new things.
When adults can’t solve a problem, it is often because they are fixated on the wrong answer or a bad strategy. This prevents them from considering different options and therefore discovering the solution. When they take a break, they forget whatever they were stuck on and are better able to solve the problem when they try again later. In fact, research shows that when adults try to solve brainteasers, such as anagrams, they are better at solving the problem when they are given a short break than if they continuously work on the problem.
Another reason forgetting is good for solving problems: When people forget, it takes more effort to remember what it is that they forget. Remembering what it is they forgot is more difficult, but actually leads to more potent learning.
For example, research shows that people are better at learning vocabulary when learning is spaced out over hours or days rather than clumped together. This is why teachers always told you to study weeks leading up to a test rather than just the night before, even though you never did it.
Most important, recent research, including my own, suggest the benefits of taking a break also extends to children. Research from Haley Vlach, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison shows that when three-year-olds are asked to learn the name of a novel object, children are better able to learn that word and generalize that word to other instances of that object when word-learning is spaced out by 30-seconds. My dissertation research at Northwestern shows that when three-year-olds have to use a map to find a hidden object in a room, they are better at using that map when they get a five-minute break in between searching compared to if they search continuously.
In both of these studies, a break gives children a chance to forget. Children may forget what they were stuck on (in my study, children get stuck searching in the same location), and they also may forget how to use the map or what the word for the object was. So when they’re presented with the word or map again, they’re prompted to think about what they previously learned.
Pausing, forgetting, and challenging children to think ultimately results in more learning.
It’s important for parents and teachers to remember that learning is not always linear. Experiencing setbacks in learning are often beneficial to kids’ development. Letting children struggle, encouraging them to take breaks, and giving them multiple opportunities to learn (and forget) can in fact lead to more robust learning.