Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?
This is not a description of a miracle drug or wonder cure, these are the proven benefits of a full night sleep. The evidence to back these claims is staggering, with over 17,000 scientific studies documented today. Below I have outlined some of the most crucial findings orientated around learning.
For fact-based learning, an area of the brain called the hippocampus helps us to apprehend fleeting experiences and remember things such as people’s names. Unfortunately, the Hippocampus is limited in storage (think of it like a USB stick). Once the hippocampus is hypothetically full, what happens? Sleep has a solution. The process of sleep shifts these recently acquired memories to a more permanent, long-term storage location in the brain, enabling us to retain more information once we wake. This reminds me of those days when you have had an intense day of study and feel like your brain has melted. Sleep essentially collects the melted solution, disposes the impurities, adds some fresh solution and moulds a fresh new brain so we can liquefy it again the next day.
This theory was tested using daytime naps. At noon all participants underwent a rigorous session of learning (one hundred face-name pairs) intended to test the hippocampus, their short term memory site. These participants were divided into two groups: a nap group and non-nap group. Soon after the intense learning session, the nap group had a ninety-minute siesta in a sleep laboratory with electrodes placed on their heads to monitor their sleep. Meanwhile, the non-nap group engaged in menial tasks such as scrolling Facebook or playing board games. Later that day at six p.m., all participants performed another round of intensive learning. The results were stunning. The difference between the groups at six p.m. was not small: a 20 percent learning advantage for those who slept. This is not trivial given that a 20 percentage point difference (not quite the same but will do for now) in the UK university system is the gap between a first class honours and a 2:2.
Learning is a broad term, so, how does sleep aid learning in other departments such as motor skills, for example, learning to ride a bike or accurately pelting a football into the top corner? When these tasks are discussed in practice, a term that is often spoken is muscle memory. This is a misnomer; muscles do not have a memory. A muscle that is not connected to the brain cannot perform skilled actions, nor does it store skilled actions. The genuine responsible party is brain memory. Training and strengthening muscles can help you better execute a skilled memory routine. However, the routine itself is stored in the brain, not the muscles.
A large group of right-handed individuals were made to learn a number sequence on a keyboard using their left hand such as 4-1-3-2-4, as quickly and as accurately as possible. Half the participants learned the sequence in the morning and were tested later that evening after remaining awake throughout the day. The other half of the subjects learned the sequence in the evening and were retested the next morning after a similar 12 hour delay, but one that contained a full 8-hour sleep. Those who remained awake throughout the day showed no evidence of a significant improvement in performance.
The sleep group showed a striking 20 percent jump in performance speed and a near 35 percent improvement in accuracy. Again, far from trivial improvements. In addition, those participants who learned the skill in the morning, and who showed no improvement that evening, did go on to show an identical bump-up in performance after they too had a full nights sleep. Therefore your brain will continue to improve skill memories in the absence of any further practice. Magical. One last point to mention is that this process of learning enhancement occurs during the final two hours of an eight hour night sleep and disastrously this is the window where we predominantly cut sleep to get a head start on the day.
8 hours has been used as a guideline amount of time required for a suitable slumber, however, this is a personal metric. Many require more, and the rare and lucky few may require less (close to zero percent of the population are fully rested with less than 6 hours of sleep a night). I personally use the bedtime system on the iPhone’s alarm app to ensure I get 9 hours and 30 minutes of good quality sleep Monday to Friday. On weekends, I do not set an alarm and instead I let my natural rhythm dictate the time I wake up. If you are tired, just sleep is one easy mantra to follow. Somedays, given my schedule is relatively flexible at university, I may come onto campus an hour later if I have had a poor sleep the night before to ensure I have benefited as much as possible from this natural panacea.
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