Remember pulling ‘all-nighters’ to cram for a college exam or even foregoing sleep more recently to meet an upcoming work deadline? While you might hope that those crammed tidbits of information will stick to your brain like fuzzy balls thrown at a velcro dartboard, that’s, unfortunately, not the case. When sleep is scarce, memories of information past will miss the mark completely.
If you’re looking to learn, studies prove that late-night cramming is not the answer. Modern science has established that sleep is not only a sweet sojourn and respite from the waking world but also a necessary path to higher brain function, memory, and learning.
Sleep & Neuroplasticity
An article in ScienceDaily suggests that “sleeping on it” is a legitimate way to improve the learning curve. Psychologists at Washington University say, “When it comes to executing items on tomorrow’s to-do list, it’s best to think it over, then “sleep on it.” When we get sufficient sleep, we’re better equipped to learn and to execute our knowledge.
One mechanism of the brain’s function is neuroplasticity. Also referred to as brain plasticity or brain malleability, this function is defined by MedicineNet.com as the brain’s “ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.” Neuroplasticity not only allows the brain’s neurons to compensate for injury and disease but also to modify their activities in response to environmental changes.
Those neural connections have a direct impact on our ability to absorb new subject matter. Beth Fisher PT, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Clinical Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California (USC), firmly believes that REM sleep is vital to motor memory consolidation. According to Fisher, studies show superior learning performance in individuals who experienced REM sleep post-learning compared to those who have not. Interestingly, those who slept actually experienced physical changes within their brains.
Learn, Sleep, Learn
Want to learn something new? Consider a study in which participants studied a foreign language. Researchers taught participants during two, daily sessions until they reached a “perfect level of performance.” Half were taught both sessions in a single day while the other half was a taught in the evening, allowed to sleep, and given a review of the material again the next morning. Their retention was assessed after one week and then, again, after six months; not only did participants who slept between sessions learn almost 50% faster, but they also had a significant improvement in long-term retention!
Another study asserts that smells and sounds may have an impact on your brain’s ability to retain information. Published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers allowed participants to take a 90-minute nap after practicing two, simple, 12-note piano tunes. During their nap, one of the melodies was played in the background on repeat for four minutes. When they awoke, the study participants could “accurately play the cued melody 4 percent more often than the melody that was not played while they slept — a significant memory boost, considering it resulted from just four minutes of “sleep-learning.”
There may be a similar link between the sense of smell and the memory consolidation process. If you study near a bouquet of lilies and then place the same flowers on your nightstand while you sleep, you may encourage your brain to focus on strengthening those specific memories of learning.
Do you want to maximize your learning potential? While it’s unlikely that you’ll be sleeping with a bouquet of flowers this evening, there is a significant lesson to be learned. If you’re attempting to learn a new language, memorize technical terms, or master any skill, don’t skimp on sleep. Better yet, study before getting a good night’s sleep…and then review the material again the next morning.