You’ve probably noticed that the “learning wheels” in your head turn easier after a good sleep. I want to explain to you why that is, and why getting enough sleep can help you learn faster and better.
Computer analogy model of memory
Before considering learning, I’d like to present you simple computer analogy of the memory. A physiological model of memory consists of working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. To get the computer analogy, working memory is like RAM – crucial to do any given task. Short-term memory is like cache and temp files, that speeds up processing and allows to perform task quicker and more efficiently, while long-term memory is like a hard disc drive.
Simple information storage model
In the brain, it’s all about interconnections between neurons. Creating neural connections are equal of ‘saving’ the info while breaking them acts like ‘delete’ button. To acquire some info, at first you must put an input into your working memory (RAM), then temporarily save it in the short-term. After this, an act of proper stimulation (repetition or very strong stimuli) transfers it to the long-term memory. To recall, you must transfer the demanded info from long-term to short-term memory by other stimuli, then express it via working memory.
Learning; three-steps process
To learn something means you work throughout three steps: gathering info, consolidating your memory about it and, finally, the ability to recall it at will. This simple model helps to understand the connection between learning and sleep. Different conditions influencing each of these steps, i.e. using different types of stimuli, like reading the text while making notes enhances gathering info. Repetitions and summing up after part of the learning improves memory consolidation, while mnemotechnics helps to recall demanded info quickly. Sleep, however, affects all of these steps in the unique and sovereign way.
Why is the sleep so important?
Sleep is like a sophisticated restart for a computer, improving input and output performance, playing a crucial role in memory forming and shaping and acting like a hardware service, all at once, during a night. Full sleep consists of both NREM and REM stages, both with different effects on your brain.
In the NREM stage, your brain wipes out the weakest neural connections, treating them as unnecessary and forgetting them (it’s like selective ‘clear the cache and temp files’ function). Moreover, awareness puts neurons in strong, metabolic stress of constant work. During NREM stage, neural activity is lowered, what is crucial from the metabolic point of view, too — think about it like a daily, automatic service, repairing small damages every night.
We experience REM as “paradoxical sleep”. Strong neural connections are firing at random in the process paradoxical sleep, crucial to memory consolidation. This process promotes strongest memories and creates new, unexpected connections between them.
Lack of sleep is catastrophic
That’s why when you are tired, your senses and attention are impaired and there is a high chance you miss much of important info. Your brain is overwhelmed with info gathered so far, and, like an overloaded computer, works on demanded tasks slower and slower… When I’m so sleepy that I have to read the same sentence many times to barely understand it — I don’t fight it, just go to bed.
Sleep deprivation impairs your ability to recall severely, too — even if you’ve acquired and consolidated it before. One of the basic mistake many makes is shortening sleep time for prolonged learning sessions. It may be a disaster during the exam or important meeting; the information is in there, but you can’t recall it. Surely it won’t do you much good!
If you need to learn something — make sure you’re blocking off enough sleep time as well as study time. The very act of sleeping is a built-in by Nature, powerful tool in consolidating your info for better recalling. After a full-time sleep, you get your info organized in the brain better, seeing the case more clearly — the deep wisdom of “sleep on it” is true and science-based. You don’t have to believe me – try it out by yourself!
Have you ever tried to compare your performance during crucial moments after a good sleep vs. all-night work? Write your experiences in the comment section below!
The medical science liaison in Neuroon Open, Medical Doctor. I am interested in psychiatry, neuroscience, and epistemology. As a former biology-class teacher and a physician by profession, I try to explain complicated and non-trivial subjects of neuroscience and psychiatry in an easy-understandable fashion. I produce and play music in my free time.