How Sleep Enhances Your Learning and Memory
If you want a tool to help you learn faster and more effectively, getting more sleep may be all you need. Research is uncovering the benefits of sleep for learning speed and recall as well as problem solving and creativity. These are some highlights of how you can use sleep to support your natural learning abilities.
Sleep after studying boosts learning and retention
A recent study from the Association for Psychological Science found that alternating sleep with study sessions may increase your speed of learning and help you remember it over longer periods of time.
The study gave French-speaking adults a set of French-Swahili word pairings. The participants were all tested on how well they had learned the translated words, then were tested again 12 hours later.
One group did their first test in the evening, slept the night and were tested again in the morning, 12 hours later. A second group did their first test in the morning, continued with their day and were retested 12 hours later in the evening.
The group that slept before retesting performed significantly better than the awake group. They remembered more and completed the test faster. In addition, the sleep group could recall much more of what they learned when tested 6 months later.
A similar University of Notre Dame study also concluded that you remember new information better when sleep occurs shortly after learning, rather than following a full day of wakefulness.
That means if you’re a student, researching how to do a project around the house, or simply brushing up on your trivia, make sure your study time is just before you go to bed.
Sleep helps you apply what you learn
A British study found that people were unable to apply new knowledge until they had slept on it.
Researchers taught a group of people a rule that related to a fictional language. The participants understood the rule, but they were not able to apply it to new words until a week later. The study concluded that key brain functions for long-term learning likely occur during sleep.
This gives a scientific basis for the saying “practice makes perfect.” Be patient if you’re learning a new skill or procedure. Give your brain time and lots of sleep to help the process along.
Dreaming enhances problem solving and creativity
A 2010 Harvard study suggested that dreaming may help with retention of recently learned material and improve performance.
Study volunteers learned how to navigate a complex, three-dimensional maze-like puzzle. Afterwards, half of them napped for 90 minutes, and the other half of the group relaxed while awake.
Perhaps it’s no surprise the volunteers who napped performed better when they tried the maze a second time. But interestingly, the few people who reported thinking about the maze just before falling asleep or those who had dreams of the maze during their nap improved on their performance about 10 times more than the other nappers did.
Most dreams happen during what’s called the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep. It’s the phase between early, light sleep and deep sleep.
Another study gave volunteers a series of creative problems in the morning and they spent the day considering solutions. Half the group napped during the day and were tested on the problems in the evening. The volunteers whose naps were long enough to enter REM sleep did 40 percent better on the test than nappers who did not get any REM sleep and non-nappers.
This suggests that sleeping long enough to enter REM sleep and dream about a problem will help your brain work more effectively towards a creative solution.
Naps improve memory and performance
Longer sleeps may be ideal, but shorter naps also have many benefits. For example, naps of 45 minutes have been shown to improve memory recall by up to five times.
If you have less than 45 minutes for a nap, even naps of 6 minutes can help. A University of Dusseldorf study found that a short, 6-minute nap improved participants’ recollection of a list of 30 words they had learned earlier in the day.
And many studies have found benefits of a 10-minute nap, including higher alertness, decreased fatigue, increased vigor and improved performance.
It may be tempting to put in long hours studying just before a test or working to get a project done, but this is actually counterproductive in the end. Try to schedule your studying or project over many days to get some good night sleeps in between your learning sessions. And if that doesn’t happen, at least make sure you stop for short naps periodically if you have to pull an all-nighter at the last minute.