Sleep, learning, and memory are complicated and interconnected phenomena, which are very important for the mental development of any individual. Various studies suggest that adequate sleep and rest enhances our learning and memory, and ensures proper functioning of the body. On the other hand, if an individual chooses not to sleep properly, their concentration levels will be severely affected, which, in turn, will lead to inefficiency in learning. Moreover, sleep assists in consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.
The mechanisms of sleep, learning, and memory are described in terms of three functions namely acquisition, consolidation, and recalling. Acquisition introduces new information to the brain; consolidation is the process by which the memory becomes stable; and the ability to access information after it has been stored is called recalling. Each of these mechanisms play a crucial role in proper memory functioning. Research suggests that acquisition and recall occur only when a person is awake, while memory consolidation takes place while we are asleep. It is the outcome of the strengthening the neural connections that form our memories. Researchers are of the opinion that particular types of memories are formed due to specific characteristics of brainwaves during different stages of sleep.
Stages of Sleep and Memory Types
New learning situations lead to the formation of different types of memory. Scientists are conducting researches to figure out if there is a relationship between the consolidation of different types of memories and the various stages of sleep. They conducted research on sleep and memory, which focused on declarative memory, that is, the knowledge of fact-based information. Another research study saw individuals engaged in an intensive language course, have increased rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). It is the stage of sleep where people dream more frequently. Scientists are of the opinion that this stage assists in acquisition of learned material. Studies have also suggested that REM sleep is involved in declarative memory processes in case the information is complex and emotionally charged.
Many researchers believe that slow-wave sleep (SWS), a deep, restorative sleep, is also very important in declarative memory, as it processes and consolidates newly acquired information. By sleeping adequately, an individual can enhance the ability to learn new tasks that require motor coordination and performance. Adequate amount of sleep also has its impact on procedural memory (how to do something, like riding a bicycle or playing a flute). Additionally, REM sleep is also crucial in the consolidation of procedural memory. Other aspects of sleep also come into play: lighter stages of sleep influences motor learning, and the amount and timing of SWS and REM sleep impacts certain types of visual learning.
Sleep Deprivation Affects Learning and Performance
The lack of sleep also has its effects on learning and cognition. When sleep deprived, it becomes difficult to focus on the work at hand, which creates hindrance in receiving information. Inadequate sleep provides no room for rest to overworked neurons. As a result, they can no longer function to coordinate information properly, which, in turn, reduces our ability to access previously learned information. Moreover, our interpretation of events may be negatively affected and our judgment will also be impaired. It will be difficult to make sound decisions, as we can no longer assess the situation properly, plan accordingly, and come up with a viable solution.
Less sleep may lead to chronic tiredness and fatigue, which may eventually lead to poor performance by individuals. Due to improper rest to the body and mind, neurons do not function optimally, the muscles do not get sufficient rest, and the body’s organ systems are not coordinated. This may even lead to lapses in focus, accidents, and injuries. Our mood is also influenced by poor-quality sleep, which, in turn, affects learning. Mood alterations create hindrances in acquiring new information and eventually recollecting the same. Chronic sleep deprivation affects different people differently. But, one should always remember that a good night’s rest is crucial for enhancing memory and learning.
Short Naps can be Helpful
Taking short naps can give an individual the much needed reprieve from hard work and stress. Some might consider taking short naps as a sign of laziness, but they must know that even during this moment of rest, the brain is working hard. Naps provide us with many advantages like: making up for the debt of remaining awake till late night during exams, preparing for upcoming loss of sleep, or to conserve energy for carrying out challenging tasks.
It has also been found that napping boosts creativity. It allows forming connections between related items and promotes the abstraction of embedded rules. Also, naps integrate common and learned items, and facilitate the integration of new and old information. They nurture major transformations in the brain, which create room for more flexible use of learned information that assists in future decision making. Naps also boost our mood and prepare us to emotionally react to the world in a better world. Sometimes we feel too tired which brings along a sense of crankiness. As a result, we develop a negative viewpoint about everything we do or come across. A short daytime nap, especially with REM sleep, can be instrumental in reducing negativity, and promote a happier perspective.
In spite of the various advantages of daytime napping, there are certain aspects people should be careful about. One may feel groggy or disoriented while waking from deep REM or SWS. However, this feeling, known as sleep inertia, will pass within 30 minutes. Moreover, napping till late in the afternoon may disrupt normal overnight sleep. Hence, one should make sure not to over extend their afternoon nap. It is beneficial to incorporate napping into the daily routine. However, if this is not possible, one can also reap the benefits of occasional naps.
Proper sleep and rest is essential for mental and physical development of people. It rejuvenates our mind and body, and prepares us to take on difficult challenges. On the other hand, sleep deprivation leads to lack of concentration and reduces the ability to learn. Hence, keeping the above mentioned implications in mind, people should spend considerable amount of time in sleeping and short naps.