Why Sleep is Important to Learning - Examined Existence

Why Sleep is Important to Learning


Ever tried studying with half-awake brain and half-closed eyes? Chances are, you didn’t retain any or it wasn’t as productive as when you would have studied fully awake. The brain functions at its optimum when it has had sufficient high-quality sleep. It is important to understand the mechanics of learning and the part that sleep plays in every phase of learning.

The phases of learning

Learning is best described in its three phases: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. During acquisition, the mind must be fully alert and focused to acquire information efficiently. A mind is focused only if it has had adequate quantity and good quality of sleep. Consolidation occurs when the person is asleep and this is the phase when the neural connections associated with memory are strengthened or consolidated. Recall is the process of retrieving information stored in memory and occurs during the waking hours of a person. A student who didn’t sleep very well may encounter mental blocks or bouts of forgetfulness during exams, and unable to carry out recall effectively.

 

Closer look at consolidation

The phase of learning that is directly related to sleep is consolidation because, obviously, this is the only phase that occurs when a person is asleep. Sleep has various stages, and scientists found out that different types of memory are consolidated at different stages. The earliest, or shallowest, sleep establishes the declarative memory. This is the memory of “what” a person knows. When one learns about different countries and their capital cities, for instance, this information is consolidated at this stage. The rapid-eye-movement (REM), or dream, sleep is usually involved when the declarative memory contains something which is complicated or emotionally disturbing. This stage of sleep is also when the procedural, or “how to”, memory is established. When a child learns how to swim, the memory is consolidated during REM stage.

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When sleep is inadequate

When sleep fails to occur in the required quality and quantity, learning suffers. As emphasized earlier, without sleep, consolidation cannot take place and learning is incomplete. Even in the other phases of sleep when a person is awake, lack of sleep will interfere with learning. Acquisition is hampered with lack of focus and inattention. Consequently, the neurotransmitters cannot connect properly to retrieve needed information when called upon to perform. There is also a danger of slipping into microsleeps without really falling asleep – when the brain just turns off and takes minute sleep. In the classroom, when there are gaps in the lecture that you don’t remember hearing at all, you could have slept without noticing. This is life-threatening when microsleep happens while you are on the road and you just drift into one.

Sleep and how the brain works are two constantly researched areas by scientists. Today, we know that sleep affects the brain’s activities significantly. Many unanswered questions remain, but it is clear that sleep impacts not only on the cognitive, but also on the emotional, behavioral and physical aspects of a person. You will absorb what you learned from this article better tomorrow; try sleeping on it.

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