The interactive website for the NOVA ScienceNOW special “The Sleep-Memory Connection” provides an opportunity to explore both the stages of sleep as well as intriguing connections scientists are exploring between sleep and memory. According to the website:

Psychologists have long suspected that sleep– both before and after learning something new– aids the development of memories. In the past decade, neuroimaging as well as an array of behavioral studies have supported these suspicions. While questions remain about exactly how sleep enhances nascent memories or preps the brain to acquire new ones, the findings to date are nonetheless intriguing.

The full 13 minute broadcast segment of this NOVA scienceNOW episode is available online. I found the discussion of how scientists at MIT have actually documented the neural activities of mice during their dream-states and correlated those activities to “replaying” and revisualizing the mazes they explored while awake to be amazing! The old saying, “I think I’ll sleep on it” may have a physiological basis, if these theories of sleep and dreams are accurate. Our bodies may use sleep and our dreams to further organize, process, and even “edit” our memories of the previous day. If you want to improve both your own capacities for learning, memory, and peak performance– as well as the capacities of your students– getting a full night’s rest not only makes sense, it also has support from some scientific studies.

This reminds me of Carl Honore’s book “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed,” which I finished reading several weeks ago. Our information filled, time-pressured, stress-encouraging 21st century culture seems to press us (in many contexts) to embrace a frenetic pace of 24/7 activity. That lifestyle, however, is not only toxic for the margin we each need to deal effectively with the challenges of life, but also seems anathema to healthy learning. If we REALLY are interested in “student achievement” as well as learning more generally inside and outside schools, we ought to be paying more attention to how much sleep we are all getting (or NOT getting) as learners each day.

According to Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School:

…the type of sleep that suffers the most dramatic decline with age is deep non-REM sleep (stages 3 and 4, also known as “slow-wave sleep”), and this type of sleep is associated with the consolidation of newly learned facts and experiences.

Have you been getting REM sleep? Have you been getting enough REM sleep? How would you know? This would be a great topic for a student research project and digital story this school term!

sleeping baby

Can sleep assist students who are cramming for examinations? Most definitely. Again according to Dr. Walker:

What does this mean for those who want to cram effectively for exams? The answer is a simple, three-part trick: (1) Get a full night of sleep before a day of cramming. This will allow your brain to be as receptive as possible to laying down new information (a dry sponge is a good analogy here, and if you don’t sleep, it will still be water-logged with learning from the prior day). (2) During the following day, learn the material deeply (i.e., think about what you are learning, and understand it, rather than use simple rote memorization). (3) Get a full night of sleep afterwards to cement and consolidate that information into the architecture of the brain. Indeed, a recent study of our own demonstrated that, following learning, sleep not only enhances individual pieces of new information but also builds associative links between them, allowing you to “see the bigger picture.”

Consider doing some longitudinal surveys of students in your class(es) this year (for at least a week) to determine what common sleep patterns are, and discuss the current research about sleep as well as the real implications these ideas have for their own lives. Like many, many other topics in science, when it comes to the subject of “sleep” there is SO MUCH scientists readily admit we do not know or understand! There are many more questions left unanswered, and questions yet to ask, than answers we know definitively about sleep.

As we get older, we tend to think we don’t need as much sleep. Perhaps we need to rethink this perception.

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One Response to Want to improve learning and memory? Try getting more SLEEP!

  1. Just a few drowsy thoughts.
    In school I was never been able to “pull all nighters” to study. I knew that I could think better with a good nights sleep.

    If I do not get enough sleep I can get short tempered and grumpy. I get tunnel vision and I cannot concentrate on anything. I have enough trouble concentrating and focusing with plenty of sleep.

    I am much more productive if I get enough sleep and I find it useful to take a nap during the day when I get sleepy.

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