Sleep On It! Why you’ll learn better with good sleep

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Sleep On It! Why you'll learn better with good sleep.

I often find myself cutting back on my sleep when I’m super busy, even though I am a huge fan of catching some z’s. We all pulled our fair share of all-nighters during college, cramming before a big exam. Now that I’m out of school, I still find myself sacrificing a good night’s sleep when I have lots going on. After all, I should be using this time to do something productive, and sleeping isn’t productive at all…right?


When it comes to learning and memory, sleeping is actually one of the most important things you can do. And many recent cognitive science articles are centered around this very topic. Details after the break.

How Sleeping Helps Your Memory

One article on ScienceDaily, entitled “Memory Links to 40 Winks,” discussed the importance of getting some sleep after making plans or to-do lists – before executing the plan itself.  They cite research done at Washington University in St. Louis that suggests that sleep helps us remember what we need to do in the future (a.k.a. prospective memory). This is because sleep helps to strengthen our associations between the task that we intend to do (e.g., e-mail a colleague) and the context that triggers the memory of this task (e.g., opening your inbox).

For you neuroscience geeks out there, the article also suggests that this effect happens during slow wave sleep, when the hippocampus is reactivating these prospective memories and putting them into long-term storage.

Consolidating Facts

Sleep also appears to be important for factual memory. A second article from, entitled “Want to Boost Your Memory? Try Sleeping on It,” says that deep sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep, or nREM) can strengthen such memories if the sleep occurs within 12 hours of the initial learning. This has important implications for how you time your study-sleep schedule.

Interestingly, this same article suggests that listening to relevant sounds during sleep may also help to improve your memory.

The author cites a study carried out at Northwestern University in which participants were better at remembering the locations of objects (e.g., a cat) if they had listened to relevant sounds (e.g., “meow”) while they napped – even though they did not remember hearing the sounds. They also cite similar past research that has been carried out in Germany with odors, but explain that the current research is more promising because of the stronger links between auditory and visual stimuli. This area of research has less obvious practical implications, but it is pretty darn cool nonetheless.

Catch Some Sleep Whenever You Can

If your job/school/family does not permit you to get the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep during the week, you might find this third article to be useful: “Tired on Mondays? Sleep More on Weekends”. This article cites research that emphasizes the danger of sleep deprivation for your attention span, alertness, and reaction times – clearly things that you need in order to have a productive workday.

The good news is that by getting just one full night of sleep, you can restore your cognitive functioning back to normal. Although these recovery periods are not the ideal replacement for getting a full night of sleep every night, they do appear to work — as long as they are regular (e.g., every weekend) and significantly long (e.g., 10 hours). In short, if you can find the time to get one really solid night of sleep each weekend, it will work wonders for improving your cognitive functioning for the whole week.

Memory and Sleeping

Finally, if you find this stuff interesting and if you have a half hour to spare, we highly recommend that you check out the video “Sleep, Memory, and Psychiatric Health” featuring Robert Stickgold, which discusses the general importance of sleep for memory consolidation, highlighting the role of different phases of sleep for different types of memories.

So, whether you’re prepping for a stressful week at work, overwhelmed by a long to-do list, or studying for a big test…GO GET SOME SLEEP!

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