sleep and learning - why sleep could be your best study tool.

Sleep and learning – sleep could be your best study tool.

Studying all night could harm your chances of getting the grade you deserve. It could be better for you and your grades if you make sleep your number one priority. In this blog, we will look at the links between sleep and learning and give some tips on how you can improve both and feel less stressed at the same time.

Have you ever crammed the night before an exam? I know I have been guilty of it in the past. I remember studying for my A-Level Biology exam and staying up all night trying to learn the Kreb’s cycle. Being so determined to get that A-grade that I was willing to sacrifice sleep. After all, I could sleep after results day. Right? Well, there is increasing evidence this is one of the worst things we can do.

Sleep and Learning

Sleep remains one of life’s mysteries. We all do it, yet we still don’t really understand the full reasons why. In terms of sleep and learning, neuroscientists are only just beginning to understand exactly why it is important.

One expert on sleep and learning is Jakke Tamminen. You can read more about his work by clicking here. Jakke spends his time researching how sleep affects memory and states how important sleep is for helping to retain new knowledge. The studies have shown that if you learn something and then stay awake all night there is a drastic impact on your memory of the new information.

Sleep itself is essential for embedding knowledge in the brain.

Jakke Tamminen

This means in reality if you spend your time studying and learning important information for an upcoming exam but then your sleep is disrupted, you are not going to remember it on the exam day.

The good news however is that if you invest in your sleep and spend several nights recovering that sleep then there is a massive difference in how quickly you recall that information. As Jakke Tamminen explains:

Sleep is really a central part of learning,” he says. “Even though you’re not studying when you sleep, your brain is still studying. It’s almost like it’s working on your behalf. You can’t really get the full impact of the time you put into your studies unless you sleep.”

How does sleep help us learn?

We still aren’t completely sure why. There are some common and well-researched theories.

Different parts of the brain perform different roles and functions, as those of you who study A-Level Biology or Psychology will know!

Two important parts for the learning of new information and sleep are the hippocampus in the brainstem and the neocortex in the upper part of the brain.

picture of the brain with parts for learning highlighted. Hippocampus in the brain stem and neocortex on the top of the brain.
Parts of the brain involved in learning.

Scientists do know that the hippocampus is involved in learning new words and ideas when we are awake. However, to consolidate those to long-term memory the hippocampus needs to communicate with the neocortex in a phase of sleep called the SWS (slow-wave sleep). There is also evidence this can happen, particularly when learning a new language, during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and the dreaming phase.

Sleep cycle diagram
Stage 1 - light sleep
Stage 2- completely asleep
Stage 3 - deep sleep and SWS
REM - sleep associated with dreaming

Sleep cycle lengths and times can vary. People seem genetically wired to certain sleep cycles but this can change with age. This change with age is one reason why teenagers may sleep more or less as they are adjusting to changes in their sleep cycle as they go through adolescence. Whatever your sleep cycle, one of the best things we can do to sleep better is recreate a rhythmic environment.

Tips for getting better sleep

This probably isn’t new information, we all seem to know what we should do; often actually doing it is the tricky part. However, remember this is vital for your learning and to make all those revision sessions worthwhile!

  • Blackout curtains and bright lights during the day to recreate a day/night cycle.
  • Day time naps can help if you are young enough. Research has shown that young children learn more effectively with a daytime nap as they get this SWS in their nap times.
  • A ritual around bedtime. There is a reason we do this with young children to help them sleep, our bodies prepare for sleep if we know when to expect it. Bath, milk, read and sleep….whatever gives your body the cue it is time to sleep.
  • Daytime exercise but not too close to bedtime. Studies have shown it is best to leave at least 2 hours between exercise and trying to sleep.
  • Avoid stimulants and caffeine too late in the day. There is even one study that says you should avoid it 8 hours before bedtime.
  • Don’t try to sleep if you are hungry, thirsty or too full of food. Plan your last meal of the day to be early enough to allow you time to balance between feeling sated but not so full you can’t sleep.
  • Reduce electronic use before bedtime, especially blue light.
  • Have a cool, dark and quiet bedroom.
  • Try hiding any clocks as they can increase anxiety about not sleeping.

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