New phones, new software, new trends, new rules and even new innovations become increasingly frequent as technology progresses. Unlike the old days where you can simply learn how to not annoy your neighbor and you’ll be set for life, the modern individual is expected to constantly learn new things to stay competitive or to simply know what is happening around them. Learning is essential. An individual capable of learning more efficiently will definitely have an advantage, and several studies suggest sleep may be the key to improving the skill of learning.
Sleep improves motor memory
A study on motor skill learning alludes to the fact that learning is consolidated and neurologically arranged hours after practice has stopped. The findings suggest “the formation of motor skill memories essentially benefits from sleep.” The sleep-enabled participants displayed an improved average sequence performance of 33.5 percent compared to the non-sleep-enabled participants and reduced error rate by 30.1 percent.
Results like these are ubiquitous in studies pertinent to sleep and learning, however, most of the the studies were external observations of the process. There wasn’t many scientific studies that were able to probe into the actual process of learning optimization during sleep. Research from UC Berkeley used Electroencephalogram tests (measures electrical activity in the brain by placing electrodes on the scalp) to discover what is known as “sleep spindles.”
Zapping your memories
According to research findings, sleep spindles are electrical impulses in the brain that move fact-based memories from the brain’s memory center with limited storage, the hippocampus, into a more stable medium with a much larger capacity, the prefrontal cortex. These pulses serve as a “learning refreshment” for the hippocampus giving it more room to store newer memories. More room equals more efficient learning.
Most people sleep at least once everyday, so why is this exactly significant? These sleep spindles can occur up to “1000 times a night” right before the REM sleep stage (dream stage). This means people who do not reach REM sleep are not getting the full benefits of sleep in relation to learning optimization.
Sleep Should be a Priority
The findings in this research study have broad societal implications including how schools and colleges schedule classes. They also have self-improvement implications. People who are venturing into a new field of study, or trying their hands on a new instrument for example should prioritize sleep over obsessive practice sessions that extend all the way into the night. Short-term memories and motor memories stored in the hippocampus are virtually pointless until they are stored in long-term form. Sleep increases the chances of short-term memories of turning into long-term memories. All-nighters would be deemed impractical. Getting a better nights sleep and studying early in the morning would be more optimal with a freshly-emptied hippocampus.
Learning while sleep deprived is like paddling against strong currents. Your time and effort will be wasted just to make a small bit of improvement. Having a high quality full night of sleep is the key to getting the most benefit out of all that effort studying. You know what they say, “work smart, not hard.”
1. Share, S. As we sleep, speedy brain waves boost our ability to learn. University of California-Berkeley, 510, 643-7944.
2. Fischer, S., Hallschmid, M., Elsner, A. L., & Born, J. (2002). Sleep forms memory for finger skills. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(18), 11987-11991.