A study conducted by Christoph Nissen at the University of Freiburg has shown how a good night’s sleep can improve our ability to learn and remember new information.
The brain activity of two sets of participants was observed in response to artificial stimulation, first designed to make the muscles on the left hand twitch and second to mimic the way neurons interact when memories are formed. It was found that participants who had just had a sleepless night reacted much more readily to the stimulation of their hand muscles, but much less readily to the stimulation of neurons involved in the forming of memories.
The implications of Nissen’s findings are consistent with the “synaptic homeostasis” hypothesis of sleep, which holds that prolonged wakefulness results in an unsustainable increase in brain activity, and that regular sleep is therefore important to “downscale” this activity to more efficient levels. The sleepless participants in the study were, in this perspective, so overworked that the processes involved in new learning became slower and less responsive.
Further recent research, published in Psychological Science, has substantiated the importance of sleep to memory and learning, by measuring the ability of participants to retain vocabulary in an unfamiliar foreign language. It was found that a period of sleep between two learning sessions not only reduced by half the amount of practice required to master the vocabulary, but also resulted in a better retention of the vocabulary six months after the initial trial.
Mr LJ Conradie, Consultant Clinical Neuropsychologist, commented, “Unfortunately many people do not adhere to healthy routines when studying or working under pressure, for example in preparation for important exams. Students might typically work late into the night, leading to tiredness which then affects their ability to cope with the demands of the following day. While many people rely on “gimmicks” such as caffeinated drinks to help deal with tiredness and study with less sleep, these findings – that sleep in fact aids and consolidates learning – should hopefully encourage people to consider a more healthy routine.”