Learning is creating new connections in our brains. It is storing memories, concepts, skills, and language. This requires energy without which these processes can get very hard. The energy our brains need comes from two sources: sleep and nutrition.
So, lets look at sleep. Humans need sleep. Our brains need sleep. I vaguely remember what my thinking felt like, when my child was still a baby and slept abominably for over a year. Someone would ask me a simple question and it took my sleep deprived brain about two hours to come up with the answer. The questions were not hard, but more on the lines of “what are we eating today?”. But due to severe and lengthy sleep deprivation, the simple process of going through the neural networks combining information such as what we have in the refrigerator and closets, was very slow. Learning, then, would have been quite impossible. This short Youtube video by Mistake Molrybro on How Sleep Plays a Role in Learning and Memory – Why Brain Needs It – Health Benefits of Sleep Video demonstrates why we need sleep to learn.
What happens is that when we sleep, our brains continue to process the information it has received during the day. Some of it is shuffled to long-term storage into various parts of our brains where it can later be retrieved. This process improves our learning in various tasks such as verbal learning, skills, emotional memory and spatial navigation. Some of it is forgotten. This process is also very important as sleep is when our brains clean out all the unnecessary stuff that hinders our brains smooth functioning.
I recently saw very clearly the effects of sleeping well as compared to not sleeping well. I am learning to play a new song on my piano. I starter learning it on a day when I had had a very good nights sleep before and learning was easy, felt fairly effortless, and I progressed well. The next night I didn’t sleep as well. So on the next day when I tried to learn more, it felt so hard. While I could play what I had learned the previous day, the effort needed to understand notes, translate that to sounds to play and combining them to a melody, just was not there. I hadn’t given my brain what it needed aka sleep, so I did not get out of it what I wanted. This is a big issue. CDC recently published an article stating that 1 in 3 adults in America are not getting enough sleep. Researchers in Finland are also concerned with tiredness. I think if I just kept googling for sleep deprivation in different languages, I could find similar results in many countries. We need more sleep and we need to sleep better to keep learning.
Luckily if we did get a short night, research has shown that naps also help us learn, so a nap can help you learn. A study in Germany found that napping, for instance, helps us learn words. Participants were asked to memorise a list of 30 words, which were asked to recall an hour later. Some participants stayed awake for this hour and they remembered an average of less than seven words. Some participants napped for a few minutes and remembered on average more than eight words. Some participants took a longer nap and remembered on average a bit over nine words. So if you did have a bad night, a nap can help you learn better.
There is also a deeper process going on that was discovered recently. Adults still generate new brain cells. The process is called neurogenesis and here is a short TEDxTalk by Sandrine Thuret about this for those of you who are intrigued. By the way, also learning increases neurogenesis, so as we keep learning, we are helping our brain to develop new neurons.
But basically, if you want to learn better, sleep better.
For more on learning and sleep:
- Harvard Men’s Health Watch: Learning while you sleep: Dream or reality?
- Wamsley & Stickgold (2012): Memory, sleep and dreaming: Experiencing consolidation