A Good Night’s Sleep Enhances Learning and Memory

teenage brains

Sleeping is Problem

40 million people suffer from chronic sleep disorders or sleep apnea (repetitive episodes of impaired breathing that interferes with sleep). 95% of adults experience some form of insomnia during their lives. More than half of the time, insomnia is caused by psychological and emotional stress. Stress is the number one cause of insomnia. One out of 5 freeway traffic accidents is the result of a driver falling asleep at the wheel. Researchers at the University of California report that losing even a few hours of sleep impairs the functioning of your immune system the next day, leaving you more vulnerable to colds and infections. Just from these statistics, we can conclude that sleep is very important to remain safe and healthy.

Sleep Affects Learning                          

Research suggests that the quality and quantity of sleep does play a very important role in memory, both before and after learning a new task!

“Sleep has been shown to enhance tasks that involve visual texture discrimination, motor adaptations, and motor sequencing.” Learning a procedure will be much easier after a good night’s sleep (Medina, 2008). The following two studies alarmed me, a mother of 15 year old twins. One study showed that if an “A” student gets under 7 hours of sleep on weekdays and about 40 minutes more on weekends, this student will begin to score in the bottom 9 percent of non-sleep-deprived individuals. Sleep-debt effects can be carried into the next week! (Cohen, 2010). Another study showed that when soldiers lost one night’s sleep it resulted in 30% loss in overall cognitive skill, with subsequent drop in performance. After missing one night of sleep, expect fatigue, reduced attention span and problems with short-term memory.

Sleep is very important for memory. If the brain is too tired, it can’t seem to focus or learn very well. Afterall, a tired brain will not even be able to focus on what needs to be learned. After you have learned something, the brain must do much work on that memory to make it stable. The brain will rehearse the new learning while sleeping – sleep strengthens the connections in the brain during sleep. In fact, memory consolidation occurs during the REM stage (dreaming stage) of sleep. Dr. Robert Stickgold, found that people who slept after learning and practicing a new task remembered more about it the next day than people who stayed up all night after learning the same thing.

Stickgold and colleagues (2000) concluded that eight hours of sleep significantly help consolidate new learning and enhance improvement in task performance. Bottom Line: Sleep loss can cripple thinking and memory (I’m sure you’ve heard that during REM, memory of what we learned that day gets consolidated).

Study Right Before Going to Bed: You Might Learn it Better!

The brain is actually working during sleep, said Ken Paller, a professor of psychology and the director of cognitive neuroscience program at Northwestern University.  In Paller’s research, a group of volunteers learned to play a simple melody on a keyboard. Then, the melody was played quietly over and over for half of the group as they slept. The other half slept in complete silence. When the volunteers woke up, the ones who had been in the room with the music were able to play the melody better. I don’t know about you, but this is a great strategy with very little effort.

Personal stories from Kreigh Knerr and Jodi Hersh help us understand this research better. These stories are from Linda Carroll TODAY Contributor (September 11, 2014): To sleep, perchance to study: New research shows how brain learns while dozing.

Kreigh Knerr used sleep-rehearsal to his advantage when he was back in college. “I was an opera performance major and I struggled to memorize my music,” said the 29-year-old business owner from Waukesha, Wisconsin. “I learned that if I studied my music hard just before bed that I would dwell on it and dream upon it through the night. Using that approach, I memorized my music much faster.”

Jodi Hersh, a 46-year-old graphic designer from Atlanta, often works through design problems while dozing. “In some cases I literally dreamed the design concept implemented the next day,” Hersh said. “In others I was literally clicking and designing and drawing in my sleep as I would on the computer, waking with the answer to whatever I was struggling with the night before.”

Beware though, like anything else that sounds too good to be true, giving after hours jobs to your brain may come at a cost, said Dr. Alon Avidan, a professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.  The brain already has lots of work to do during sleep, Avidan said. “Like a librarian shelving new books, the brain must take memories of events that occurred during the day, decide where to store the important ones and then come up with a card catalog for accessing them later. Giving the brain a task to do during sleep might be like distracting the librarian from shelving with a long phone call. Or, alternatively, sleep might not be as restorative,” Avidan said.

Your biological rhythms are programmed to shift down into a sleep mode at about the same time each evening. The hormone melatonin and several brain chemicals, including serotonin, are involved in inducing sleep and sustaining it throughout the night. Here are some all natural strategies that will improve your sleep.

Strategies to Improve Sleep

  1. The serotonin-producing foods are carbohydrates. Carbohydrates work even for dynamic, intense individuals whose brains never seem to stop whirring. You need to eat 1- 1 1/2 ounces of a low-fat complex carbohydrates approximately 30 minutes before sleep. Examples: whole grain/wheat toast, oatmeal, whole grain cereal, whole grain pasta, whole grain crackers, etc.


  1. Do not drink caffeine after late afternoon. It can actually wake you up more often during the night too.


  1. Exercise. People who exercise are much less prone to insomnia than are sedentary people. Do not exercise 4 hours before falling asleep – it could interfere with a good night’s sleep. Exercise produces a surge in sleep hormones.


  1. Alcohol can suppress a phase of sleep called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) during which most of your dreams occur. Less REM is associated with more night awakenings and more restless sleep. Limit alcohol intake daily (2) and avoid drinking it within 2 hours of bedtime.


  1. Large, fat-laden dinners should be avoided. Heavy meals stimulate prolonged digestive action, which can keep you awake. Try making breakfast and lunch your larger meals.


  1. Make sure you’re getting the required amount of vitamins and minerals. In a study at the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry in Tokyo, researchers gave vitamin B12 supplements to chronic insomniacs, who, within days, began sleeping better. Sleep problems returned when the supplement was discontinued (B12 has an influence on melatonin).


  1. Avoid spicy foods at dinnertime and limit your intake of gas-forming foods to before noon.


  1. Set a bedtime ritual that helps program your body to expect sleep.


  1. If a carbohydrate-rich snack doesn’t help you sleep, try drinking a cup of warm milk at bedtime.


  1. Natural sleep aids according to Food and Mood by Elizabeth Somer: Chamomile, St. John’s Wort, valerian, kava (can be addicting though), and melatonin. Inhaling the scent of lavender (essential oil) can promote sleepiness too. Another all natural sleep aid is calcium and magnesium pill before going to bed. When it in the 2:1 ratio amount, it acts as an all natural muscle relaxer. (EX: 600 mg of calcium/300 mg of magnesium).


  1. A new study (2014) at Iowa State University (Douglas Gentile), published by JAMA Pediatrics found that children get more sleep, do better in school, behave better and value other health benefits when parents limit content and amount of time their kids are in front of a screen (TV, computer and phones). So just limiting screen time can help children get more quality sleep.


  1. Stay away from screens (TV, computers, phones, etc) 1-2 hours before going to bed. Research found that the screens can excite the brain cells, deterring melatonin production for sleep (because of bright light from screens). In a 2013 study (Rettner; LiveScience), people who surfed the web or sent a text message within two hours of going to bed reported higher levels of stress than those who didn’t engage in these behaviors. Technology before bed disrupted sleep too.
Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: lnickelsen@comcast.net or visit her website: http://www.maximizelearninginc.com.

1 Comment

  1. Hi LeAnn,

    Great stuff…all very practical. I just read the article linked below about sleep and memory. It references napping, not necessarily night-time sleep but it still shows the connection between sleep and brain function.


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