No matter how old they are or what their occupation and hobbies are, people are either forced or strongly encouraged to keep learning new skills and information. However, the nature of our work shifts or school schedules and the increasingly demanding tasks we’re asked to complete lead to a lot of stress, and stress leads to sleeping problems. A well-rested person is much more capable of learning, memorizing and processing information efficiently than someone who is fatigued, irritable or unfocused. Because the most stressful and difficult jobs often require constant learning on the fly, and academic success is becoming more and more critical in our society, it’s crucial to be aware of how we can maximize productive learning time without sacrificing every hour of the day and ending up miserable.
This article aims to show the connection between healthy sleep and an increased ability to memorize information and accurately reproduce it when necessary. The idea is to create enough awareness that students and workers can plan their sleep schedule in a way that makes them the most productive, and frees up more time overall for leisure activities and personal interests. Let’s dive right in.
The Basics of Learning
In order to understand more about how sleeping interacts with our capability to learn, it’s worth breaking down learning into “components.” These components are acquisition, consolidation, and recall, in the order that they occur in. Each of these is crucial to our ability to retain knowledge, and all of them can be affected by how we sleep. We will explain them, and look at how sleeping (and sleeping problems) interact with these components to paint a clearer picture.
The acquisition is the act of finding and receiving information. It only occurs during our waking period but is still affected by how much we sleep and when we sleep. The same is true of recall, our ability to reproduce and apply the knowledge we’ve gained. Both of these can be ruined by daytime fatigue or sleepiness. Fatigue has a number of negative consequences on our mind, including but not limited to:
- A significant drop in mood. The fatigued person is often much more irritable and aggressive, and their responses to stress and other obstacles become more emotional. It can be hard to interact with them or teach them something. They are much more likely to lose focus and respond poorly to any complications.
- Memory issues and weaker information processing. Being able to interpret the information you receive properly is important if you want to truly learn something. Think about all those times you tried to memorize entire lessons in text form without understanding any of the subject matter – it isn’t reliable as a learning method because you’re not sure what’s even happening in the lesson, you’re just trying to recite definitions and go from there. Excessive fatigue can impair your memorization abilities, making it even harder to improvise that way.
- Weakened hand-eye coordination. While not a huge issue for someone studying theoretical knowledge, weakened hand-eye coordination seriously impacts people trying to learn a craft through practical work. Not only does this limit your ability to form strong muscle memory, but it also makes you more prone to potentially serious injuries.
Consolidation is a bit different. It is the only learning component that directly occurs during sleeping hours, which means the effect of our sleep quality on learning is the most obvious here. Depending on what your sleep architecture looks like and how much time you spend sleeping, the level of memory consolidation you’re experiencing can vary wildly. Certain sleep stages have the primary goal of “repairing” the mind, which includes memory consolidation, so a healthy uninterrupted sleeping session is the only satisfying scenario. Let’s look at how each sleep stage contributes when it comes to learning and memorization.
The Role of Sleep Stages in Learning
It’s not an exaggeration to claim that every sleep stage contributes at least something that helps us learn more efficiently. We’ll tackle them in order of appearance, to help you understand why you need at least a good 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep to learn old information and prepare for new knowledge.
Light Sleep and Learning
Light sleep (stage 2 specifically) is the stage that’s most often associated with memory consolidation. Around 50 percent of our total sleep time is spent in light sleep, and this number grows as the person gets older or as they catch health conditions that keep waking them up or causing fragmented sleep. It can be easy to assume that excessive time spent in stage 2 is actually beneficial to our learning because of the memory consolidation that happens in it, but it’s important to realize that other stages also make a contribution, and REM sleep, in particular, helps prepare our mind for the upcoming day. People who don’t spend enough time in deep or REM sleep often deal with considerable fatigue the following day.
Stage 2 of light sleep is characterized by a unique brainwave pattern called sleep spindles (or just spindles for convenience). These brain waves are named for how they appear on an EEG reading – a short, quick burst of low-amplitude oscillation. While spindles have not been fully “deciphered” by sleep researchers and neuroscientists yet, we have a pretty solid idea on what their purpose is. The widely accepted idea is that spindles represent a transfer of information from the hippocampus to the frontal cortex. Think of it as turning cached short-term memories into actual knowledge that’s retained for a long time. Spindles are sometimes considered a mark of intelligence, as connections have been made between spindle production frequency and the person’s performance IQ. Additionally, older people tend to have slowed down spindle production, which can explain some of the adverse effects that aging has on a person’s mind.
Light sleep is so effective in helping you learn new information that people often recommend taking short naps to consolidate things you’re trying to learn. Much like the REM stage, light sleep plays a (smaller but still relevant) role in preparing the brain to handle new information, which is why we often come up with solutions to problems after “sleeping on it,” hence the expression. Oddly enough, sleeping helps us more when it comes to solving harder problems than easier ones.
Deep Sleep and Learning
Deep sleep (otherwise known as sleep stage 3) has repeatedly been shown to increase our ability to consolidate declarative memory. Declarative memory (otherwise known as explicit memory) is a conscious, intentional, internal recollection of concepts, factual knowledge, and various experiences. As you may have guessed from that description, this is mainly important for school and university students, since this type of memory is directly associated with remembering concrete facts. The more deep sleep a person experiences regularly, the higher their chances of remembering something crucial when it counts, such as on a test.
Stage 3 is critical for our ability to learn higher-order, more abstract concepts. This learning process is much more taxing on our brain, as we’re not just memorizing simple concepts and facts. Examples of higher-order thinking include the ability to analyze, think critically (very important for improving at almost any skill the person wishes to learn), evaluate and synthesize (which is how new knowledge is formed). Seniors regularly spend much less time in deep sleep than they should, as fragmented sleep is one of the main symptoms of age. As a result, they find it much harder to learn new information, especially abstract concepts.
REM Sleep and Learning
REM sleep (or stage 4, as it’s also known) is the sleep stage where vivid dreaming takes place. One of the many theories about the purpose of dreaming claims that dreams help us replay memories or invented scenarios in our head while sleeping, to help us reinforce our knowledge and prepare for risky situations. Think of it as a subconscious mental exercise for the near future. This idea may explain why we often dream about things that happened the previous way, although usually indirectly. Because of this memory replay function, REM sleep is considered crucial for solidifying recently acquired knowledge, even without considering all the other mental benefits of this sleep stage.
Stage 4 is also responsible for abstraction – a core information processing technique. Have you ever used a mind map (or mental map)? It is a manually-drawn network of information that helps the person making it memorize a whole bunch of information without having to painstakingly recite the definitions and sentences for hours. The idea is that any new information you get can be assimilated into this more abstract environment, and connected with other relevant pieces of information. Our ability to connect pieces of information that we got at separate moments and that we originally associated with separate concepts is a key part of our intelligence as humans.
Sleep and Bad Student Habits
Being a student can be rough, especially for college-aged students. Exam deadlines are always looming over your head; some professors are simply not good at teaching; some textbooks are written in an unintuitive and over complicated way – we’ve all been there. Because of this hectic schedule, a lot of students naturally develop bad habits without noticing them. However, those habits could be ruining their sleep, and therefore their ability to learn efficiently and deal with those exams. Here’s a brief list of behaviors students resort to when they’re under academic pressure, no matter who it’s coming from (parents, teachers, peers, etc.):
- Pulling all-nighters. While a night spent studying is often considered an emergency, last resort method of flash-studying before a scary exam, it offers very little tangible benefit. Not only is sleep necessary for proper learning, but the process can also often take multiple nights, which makes the odds of actually remembering a lot of the information you read during an all-nighter incredibly small. Besides, the need to sacrifice that much sleeping time to “catch up” on all the schoolwork you have in your backlog is often a sign of underdeveloped work habits and lifestyle problems. Give yourself ample time to prepare for an exam so you can sleep properly and be more productive.
- Drinking excessive amounts of coffee. While this applies to other stimulants and substances as well, coffee is the main offender in this context. This habit goes hand-in-hand with the abovementioned all-nighters because the student needs some way of staying awake through that much-missed sleep. However, this habit directly hurts their ability to rest the following night, creating a horrible cycle of fatigue and sleeping problems that can not only cause their grades to drop but also damage their health. Tea is equally risky if consumed in large amounts, and it’s also a part of youth culture as a staple drink. Heavy sugar consumption and other dietary issues do nothing to eliminate fatigue during the day or assist in healthier sleep.
- Partying too hard or too often. This point mostly boils down to alcohol use, as alcohol has a huge amount of negative effects on the body. Every college-age student is well-aware of hangover symptoms that can ruin not just an exam, but an entire day’s worth of concentration and attention. On top of that, alcohol can disrupt melatonin production, reducing it by around 20 percent after only a moderate dose. Sadly, alcohol consumption, in general, is one of the most common measures students (and working adults, let’s be honest) take to deal with stress and anxiety. It’s doing them a lot more harm than good.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic