We’ve all had that annoying moment when you think you’ve finally mastered something only to realize that after one simple distraction your new knowledge or skill is gone. To truly get the hang of something, a new study at Brown University reveals that old hackneyed phrase, “practice makes perfect” is really true.

Published in Nature Neuroscience, the results show that people who kept learning a visual task 20 minutes after proficiency retained the information even when new knowledge was acquired. However, overlearning the first task can actually prevent you from learning something new if not enough time has passed.

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Professor Takeo Watanabe and his colleagues at Brown studied 183 volunteers as they learned a visual task. After about 20 minutes, 60 participants mastered the assignment. Two new groups were formed with one learning the exercise for 20 minutes and the other for 40 minutes (essentially overlearning for 20 minutes). Each group took a pre-test before the initial training, a 30-minute break before taking on a new, but similar task for 20 minutes and then a test to evaluate how much they learned.

When tested to see what was retained, the group who only learned for 20 minutes didn’t fare well on the first task but did well on the second. Those who “overlearned” did well on the first test but were not as strong on the second.

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Watanabe’s team then increased the break between learning sessions to 3.5 hours. This tweak resulted in increased performance on both tasks. The reason, scientists believe, is due to a neurotransmitter in the brain, glutamate, which promotes elasticity. After half an hour of training, glutamate leaves your brain at peak state moldability (meaning you’re more likely to lose that information you just learned), before going back to normal levels.

The study only evaluated learning visual tasks, but Watanabe believes this can be used for other types of learning, like motor tasks, where interference is similar.

What does that mean for you? “If you want to learn something very important, maybe overlearning is a good way,” Watanabe explains in a statement. “If you do overlearning, you may be able to increase the chance that what you learn will not be gone.”

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