The brain evolved to use light and darkness wisely. Acquire information by day; process it at night.
The effects of sleep on learning and memory are impressive.
Recent discoveries show that sleep facilitates the active analysis of new memories, allows the brain to solve problems, and infer new information. The “sleeping brain” may also be selectively reinforcing the more difficult aspects of a newly learned task.
We may be able to get by on six hours sleep, but if we want to optimize learning and memory, then closer to eight hours is better. Only with more than six hours of sleep does performance improve over the 24 hours following the learning session, according to researchers Robert Stickgold of Harvard University and Jeffrey Ellenbogen of Massachusetts General Hospital who both study the interactions of sleep and cognition.
The research suggests that while we are peacefully asleep, our brain is busily processing the day’s information. While we sleep, the brain combs through recently formed memories, stabilizing, copying and filing them so that they will be more useful the next day. A night of sleep can make memories resistant to interference from other information and allow us to recall them for use more effectively. Sleep, in all of its various phases, does something to improve memory that being awake does not do.
Apparently, science is proving what many of us had intuitively known as students. We would study what we want to remember just before going to bed at night. Sleep not only strengthens memories by going over the material, it is also a problem solver. The process can identify what is worth keeping and maintaining and thereby enhance memory. The brain may have to shut off external inputs because nonconscious cognition appears to use the same brain resources that are used for processing signals when we are awake.
In the process of handling new memories, sleep may be creative. As a language arts major in college, I was required to write papers from 7 to 20 pages throughout the semester. The assignment was directed at the novels or the poem or a short story that the class was reading. I would challenge myself to write something original and interesting. I would then think about possibilities and ask myself all kinds of questions. Sometimes I went to bed saying to myself, “Let my subconscious work it out. When I wake in the morning, I will have it.” And it always came to pass.
Even for a term paper, whenever I came to a tangle that stopped me, I used the same approach. “Let it cook in my subconscious. The work will be done there.” I woke the next morning with the answer. And often, the answer surprised me with its creativity.
Two ingredients were at work here: First: I had filled my head with information, possibilities, and questions so that my subconscious had material to work with. Second: I had full confidence in the process.
Apparently during sleep, collections of memories are filtered and new relationships are established. Sometimes this processing helps find what we have missed.
In a nutshell, the brain needs time to process information, and sleep provides the necessary opportunity. To put it more simply, the brain learns while we sleep.
Points to Remember:
- While we sleep, our brain is processing information learned during the day.
- Sleep makes memory stronger and even appears to weed out irrelevant details and background information so that only the important pieces remain.
- Our brain works during slumber to find hidden relations among memories and to solve problems we are working on while awake.
- We may ask our brain during slumber for creative solutions.
- More than six hours (closer to eight hours) of sleep maximizes memory.