Train your brain series: Sleep and learning

Photo by Adi Goldstein on

Photo by Adi Goldstein on

Sleep plays an important role in learning. That may seem obvious when thinking about children and learning. In fact it applies to us all. Recognising this is one thing, using it to your advantage is an under-utilised learning hack.

Train your brain tileHow can sleep affect learning?
With the growing knowledge about the brain, the role of sleep has been one of the interesting discoveries. Your body’s lymphatic system is used to clean the toxins from your body.  It operates as network of vessels parallel to the circulatory system. It extends throughout the body and takes up proteins and other waste from the spaces between the cells, collects them and releases them into the blood so they can be disposed of. However, there are no lymphatic vessels in the brain.

When you sleep your brain cells get a clean out
How do the toxins in your brain get cleaned out? When you are asleep, a fluid flushes through your brain performing a similar function to  the lymphatic system. It clears away the waste from the brain cells. This fluid is cerebrospinal fluid or CSF. Interestingly, this flushing can only happen in the sleeping brain. Why? Your brain shrinks when you sleep, creating space for CSF to pass in and around the brain cells.

Another cleansing effect of sleep
Sleep serves to “tidy up”ideas and concepts involved in the memory and learning process. It helps to consolidate learning by erasing the less important memories and strengthens areas that you need or want to remember. Your brain also rehearses neural patterns in things you are learning to deepen and strengthen them.

Sleep enhances problem solving
Sleep has been found to help with solving difficult problems and understanding what you are trying to learn. It is suggested that sleep enables the deactivation of conscious thought in the pre-frontal cortex (in the front of your brain) which in turn helps other areas of your brain to connect putting together a neural solution. Learning is consolidated through the strengthening of these neural pathways. This is how memory is formed

How to apply this?
If you are struggling with a problem, or trying to make a breakthrough in learning something try using sleep to help. Even a ten-minute nap can help. Turn off phones and emails that ping. Set a timer and lie down for a sleep for a set time. When you wake up – get back to your work or problem – and see how things may change.

One more reason to get a good night’s sleep – Jeff Iliff, TEDMED 2014
Learning to learn: The importance of sleep in learning -Barbara Oakley, Coursera MOOC
Sleep, Learning and Memory – Harvard Medical School

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