The Pomodoro Technique, Brain Breaks, and TED Talks: How to Increase Focus and Improve Memory Retention

Extracted from BRAZ-TESOL MBE Facebook page


“Brain breaks were, by far, one of the most interesting things I heard in a presentation about neuroscience. I would love to know more about the activities you usually carry out with your students following this trend.”

María Eugenia Alvarez, British Council Argentina

“Brain breaks have proved themselves essential for my lessons with kids, teenagers, and adults. Concentrating for more than 20 minutes is very difficult and that’s exactly when Brain Breaks appear! I have used games that students need to move and use their hands rather than just talk (TPR) or changing the focus asking questions related to the student’s interest.”

Letícia Farnezes Figueiredo,  Let’s Speak English School Owner

“We’re imitating Mr. Bean’s funny dance. Brain breaks are the best idea ever! Thanks!”

Liliane Guimarães,  Escola de Idiomas Liliane Guimarães Owner

I have been teaching some courses and delivering seminars, workshops, and lectures for some time now with Brain Breaks and I honestly believe these three quotes, which I got as feedback, summarize how impacting they can be. But, what are Brain Breaks and how have I come across this idea? In our third MBE post, we’ll explore what Brain Breaks can do for you in class, during any presentation and how they can help students focus and better retain information.

It was back in 2015 when Partners of the Americas Wyoming sent the extremely competent teacher Kari Farley to spend a couple of weeks with us at CCBEU, the school I work for. She delivered one of the best presentations I have ever attended about student engagement and activities. Her secret: well-designed slides, innovative topics, fun hands-on tasks, and, above all, mini pauses to let her ideas sink in. She called them Brain Breaks. I immediately fell in love with the idea.

The Pomodoro Technique

I began researching about Brain Breaks and found some interesting websites with suggestions for many different activities and a very interesting technique kept coming up: the Pomodoro Technique. No, it’s not the best way to make delicious Sunday spaghetti for your family, instead, it’s a highly effective way to study or work. Francesco Cirillo, its creator, came up with the idea when he was a college student in the 80’s on a dare he proposed to himself: he wanted to check if he could study nonstop for 10 minutes, really focusing on the task. To do so, he needed a timer and, as any good Italian, he found a tomato-shaped timer in the kitchen, hence Pomodoro (tomato in Italian) (Cirillo, 2006).

Francesco found out that after some attempts over a certain period and quite some effort, he was able to stop procrastinating and actually improved his concentration levels and study process. He fine-tuned the technique and arrived at the ideal amount of time of focused work, which is 25 minutes. After these 25 minutes, he would take a 5-min break and go back to his task for another 25 minutes plus a 5-min break again and so on. After 4 blocks of studying and 4 breaks, he’d take a longer break (1 hour). Today, the Pomodoro Technique is widespread and quite popular as a study app (Cirillo, 2006).

MBE, Brain Breaks and TED

In order to explain why and how Brain Breaks work, Knight (1996), and Vanderbergue et al (1996) posit that our brains work with patterns and. Tokuhama-Espinosa (2014) says that we are hardwired to scan the environment for things that are new and therefore attract our attention. This shifts our attention mode and jumpstarts our capacity to notice things. In turn, Barbara Oakley’s work, which, similarly to Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique, offers another insight into why Brain Breaks may work. She doesn’t really talk specifically about Brain Breaks, but in her book, A mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra), she claims that we have two modes of thinking and that in order to learn effectively we must go back and forth from one to the other. In the focused mode, we are concentrated practicing the content we’re trying to learn. In the diffuse mode, we are engaged in another task, not deliberately thinking about the content, simply resting our brain and letting the new information sink in. To use her own words: if you want to climb a mountain, you need to do the hard work (focused mode) and stop at the base stations to relax, rest and check your gear (diffuse mode) a couple of times too.

Now, If we look into the works of Stuart and Rutherford (1978), Davis (1993), Benjamin (2002), and McKeachie (2006), anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes seems to be the rule of our attention span and 15 minutes seems to be the golden rule. Miller (1956), Sweller (1988), and Cowan (2001) pitch in with the idea of cognitive overload, that is, our brains do not have unlimited capacity to store information and the number of “chunks” of information we can hold varies from 2 to 9.

The most studied brain in neuroscience history has also made its contribution to the idea of a 15-min rule. Henry Molaison, known as HM for decades because of doctor-patient-science confidentiality, had parts of his hippocampi removed in surgery to stop seizures. After the procedure, although his seizures were cured, Henry suffered from short-term memory loss being unable to form long-term explicit memories. He could remember a random 3-digit number or names of people he had just met for no more than 15 minutes (Squire, 2009).

Even though the literature has not reached a consensus on whether the 15-minute rule really applies, a global phenomenon is designed with that magical number in mind. TED Talks have become a widespread source of knowledge and innovative ideas. With the no-more-than-18-min-long framework, TED speakers have been watched billions of times on, YouTube, and other platforms. In the words of TED curator, Chris Anderson:

“It’s long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention” (Gallo, 2014).

Indeed, it feels like TED Talks’ incredible popularity has something to do not only with the content but also the duration. I can definitely say that I’m a huge fan of TED Talks, which are certainly a source of inspiration and great knowledge to me. And I often remember them!

Tips and Conclusions

Be it as it may, it does seem like our attention span starts decaying after a couple of minutes. From personal experience, I can most certainly say that very long and break-free exposures of content are tiresome and not as effective as they could be. And the underlying issue here is: if we start losing focus, we stop getting the stimuli from our environment and we start losing input, which means that the information won’t even have the chance to transition from sensory memory to short-term memory to long-term memory, according to Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) Multi-Store Model:

Image result for atkinson and shiffrin model

Therefore, my suggestion is that you teach (or speak, if it’s a presentation, lecture or workshop), always trying to interact with the audience, for around 25 minutes and include a Brain Break that can last up to 5 minutes. So here are the top five most used Brain Breaks in my classroom:

  • Short funny or incredible videos:

Use the sneezing panda baby, the frog failed attempt to catch a dragonfly (Jamie Keddie’s ideas) or Zach King performing amazing magic tricks.

  • Quizzes and Games

Add 3 or 4 questions about the first, second, third and fourth blocks of your class or presentation. Let your audience work in pairs and do some active retrieval. You can also have them play their own quizzes. Countries, songs, actors or books will work fine. Have puzzles, card and board games ready for some action in between activities.

  • Music

In class, allow students to bring their cell phones and headphones. This way they can all listen to their favorite music style and not disturb anyone else. In a presentation, choose a song to energize your audience.

  • Physical Activity

Have everyone stand up and walk around to talk to different people. Use something to play catch. A stuffed elephant (Mr. Trunk) or paper balls will do.

  • Sharing

Ask everyone to share their favorite dessert recipe or their plans for the weekend. Have them do their favorite accent or talk about their favorite movies.

To sum up, I believe we could use a break now and then. The same is true for our brains, after all, they’re doing all the hard work! Give your brains a break and let me know how things went.

Finally, I must confess, though, that many of us already use some sort of Brain Break in class. When we change patterns of interaction or our seating arrangement, for example. Or when we let our class go unplugged for some minutes because our students started an interesting discussion. However, if we understand how to use Brain Breaks in a more systematic way and include some different options, I believe we can achieve what Débora Quintino’s feedback to me expresses and see some real transformation in learning outcomes:

“It totally changed my classes in a positive way (I told you that before). Can you believe a student of mine told her classmate at regular school about our brain breaks, her History teacher listened to it (because she told her friend in details how we work in class) and next class her teacher used them? She told me it was a success! After the Brain Breaks, even the students that don’t usually ask questions, asked. And wise ones! This student of mine said: “Débora,  you changed my world twice”. I told her “you changed mine 3 times”. And now I tell you, André, you changed mine forever! Thank you very much for teaching me!”

Débora Quintino, English Teacher at Liliane Guimarães Escola de Idiomas

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Atkinson, R.C.; Shiffrin, R.M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes”. In Spence, K.W.; Spence, J.T. The psychology of learning and motivation.  New York: Academic Press. p. 89–195

Benjamin LT, Jr. (2002) Lecturing. In: The Teaching of Psychology: Essays in Honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer, edited by Davis SF and Buskist W. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, p. 57– 67.

Cirillo, F. (2006) The Pomodoro Technique (The Pomodoro). Available at:, accessed on 12/05/2017

Cowan N. (2001) The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 24:87–185

Davis BG. (1993) Tools for Teaching. San Franciso, CA: Jossey-Bass

Gallo, C. (2014) Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Knight, R. T. (1996).Contribution of Human Hippocampal Region to Novelty Detection. Nature, 383(6597), 256-259

McKeachie WJ. (2006) Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston: Hougton-Mifflin

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97

Oakley BA. (2014). A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin

Squire, L. R. (2009). The Legacy of Patient H.M. for Neuroscience. Neuron61(1), 6–9.

Stuart J, Rutherford RJ. (1978) Medical Student Concentration during Lectures. Lancet 312: 514 –516

Sweller, J. (1988), Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12: 257–285

Vandenberghe R, Price C, Wise R, Josephs O, Frackowiak RS (1996) Functional Anatomy of a Common Semantic System for Words and Pictures. Nature 383:254–256


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12 thoughts on “The Pomodoro Technique, Brain Breaks, and TED Talks: How to Increase Focus and Improve Memory Retention”

  1. Awesome! Surely I will use the magic of Brain Breaks in some moment of my life. Thank you André for spreading knowledge!

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