The role of sleep in learning

The role of sleep in learning

Working on insufficient sleep can be bad for business. Besides being cranky and unable to think straight, it can also be attributed to medical ailments like headaches, depression, diabetes and heart disease to mention a few. By contrast, a good night’s sleep may hold the secret to unlocking successes! 

Impatient to start my new Coursera MOOC: “Learning how to learn”, I made an early start on module 1. This post relays key learning from this – the importance of sleep.

The importance of sleep
Sleep has a particular importance in the life of the brain. Every organ of the body produces waste which is cleared by our lymphatic system. However, there is no lymphatic system in our brain – even though our brain too has waste to dispose of. Instead, what happens is our brain is flushed out by cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) while we sleep. This can only happen then. When we are asleep our brain cells shrink, creating space for the fluid to flush through and wash toxins out.

But that’s not all.  While asleep, as well as being flushed out, the brain tidies up important concepts and ideas that you have been thinking about. It cleans out less important areas and strengthens the areas you need and want to remember. You can learn more about the science behind it here in a TED Talk by Jeff Iliff.

Have you ever woken up in the morning and found it easy to sort out a problem you may have been grappling with the day before? While you have been asleep the brain has been sorting this out.

What happens?
During sleep your brain rehearses some of the tougher things you are trying to learn – going over and over neural patterns to deepen and strengthen them. This increases your ability to work out difficult problems and to understand what you are trying to learn. When you are asleep it is as if  the part of the brain that deals with conscious thought  – the prefrontal cortex – is switched off. This helps other areas of your brain to connect more easily to each other, allowing you to put together a neural solution to learning task(s). This happens because while you were awake you were engaged in thinking/learning which this plants the seed for more diffused modes of processing while you are asleep.

Sleeping to enhance learning
If you are going over what you are learning right before you have a nap or go to sleep for the evening, you have an increased chance of dreaming about it. If you go even further and deliberately think about the topic you want to dream about before going to sleep, it seems to improve your chance of dreaming about it even more. Dreaming about what you are studying can substantially increase what you understand. It consolidates your memories into easier to grasp chunks.

Should we provide sleeping mats in all classrooms?

Or beds in corporate offices?

Yes – I think so!

I used to use sleep in this way. I would turn off all distractions, set my phone on a ten-minute timer and settle down under my desk for a quick power-nap during my work day. I found it refreshing and a bit like hitting the reset button on my brain. I started this when I was completing a postgraduate degree and carried it over to work.

What if you don’t get enough sleep?

Implications of lack of sleep
Sleep deprivation can have many implications depending on the severity of the case. In a study on sleep deprivation and its impact on cognitive performance, it was noted that

“… attention and working memory are impaired [as well as] reaction times, spatial accuracy and speed of completing tasks …”
Paula Alhola1 and Päivi Polo-Kantola2, 

In another study, impairments from sleep deprivation were viewed as being akin to being under the influence of alcohol:

“… commonly experienced levels of sleep deprivation depressed performance to a level equivalent to that produced by alcohol intoxication …”
A M WilliamsonAnne-Marie Feyer

Cognitive performance is impaired by sleep deprivation. What does that mean for us? For the worker it probably means a decline in work quality and output. For the student, that would be the same. So the idea of doing “an all-nighter” in preparing for an exam or completing a paper is going to have limitations. Add to that the stress that may accompany these events, and you have a mix of factors that are not performance enhancing.

The moral of the story? Be disciplined.

  • Prepare well.
  • Plan and manage your study/paper preparation.
  • Get good sleep.

If you have a disturbed night – unexpectedly, maybe the ten-minute power-nap will become your friend?

What’s next? Your brain and exercise

Much of the content in this post was drawn from learning materials in the Learning how to learn MOOC available through Coursera.

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