Snooze For Smarts – Can Sleep Really Improve Learning?

Thinking of pulling an all-nighter for your final exams? Think again. Scientists prove that sleep helps improve brain function and enhance learning.

Do you plan to study for your exams? Do you plan to expand your skillset by reading books? If so, then get enough sleep!

Sleep certainly affects brain function the same way the lack of nutrition does. Sleeping problems are almost always symptoms of certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression. If the lack of sleep has adverse effects on the brain, can the opposite bring stellar results?

After almost a decade of research, scientists have managed to prove that there’s a connection between sleep and learning.

Sleep enhances memory retention

In 2005, a study conducted by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), showed that a good night’s sleep helps improve memory retention. The study also demonstrates why children need more sleep than adults do. Sleep basically acts as a catalyst for processing newly acquired memories and turning them into knowledge.

How does it work? It all starts while a person is still wide awake. The brain’s prefrontal cortex basically “labels” or “tags” new memories as they come. As a person reads a book or studies a set of notes, the brain already tries to find out which pieces of information are relevant to future tasks and which ones are not. During sleep, the hippocampus then sorts and consolidates these memories. Relevant memories are converted to long-term memories while the others are kept short-term.

Sleep improves intelligence

In 2007, researchers from the same institution (BIDMC) conducted a study that linked relational memory to getting a good night’s sleep. Relational memory pertains to the ability to interpret pieces of information logically — seeing “the big picture”. The better a person is at this; the more intelligent he is perceived to be. Matthew Walker, who, at the time of the study, was the Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, stated that:

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Relational memory is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle. It’s not all enough to have all the puzzle pieces — you also have to understand how they fit together.

To sleep or not to sleep; that is the question

Last year, Matthew Walker conducted another study that showed that even power naps improve learning. It’s therefore a good idea to squeeze in power naps during hours of work or study.

However, not all people are accustomed to naps. Some people experience what is known as sleep inertia. Sleep inertia is more popularly known as being “half-asleep” and is characterized by one or more of the following:

  • Being groggy
  • Temporary loss of balance and dexterity
  • Desire to get back to sleep

Whether you’re prone to sleep inertia or not depends on certain factors, including sleep length, timing, body temperature, and chemical stimuli. Caffeine is known to prevent sleep inertia because of its ability to suppress the build-up of adenosine in the brain during sleep.

Are you still thinking about pulling an all-nighter? Drop the habit now. Sleep can indeed improve your brain’s ability to learn. By getting enough hours of sleep before and after intensely studying or working, you can achieve better results than if you were to pull an all-nighter.

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