Learning & the brain: Sleeping, Learning and Lasting Memory

Speaker write-up from Learning and the Brain Conference, February 12-14

Sleeping, Learning and Lasting Memory, Matthew Walker

I have been hearing for years about the importance of sleep, but Matthew Walker convinced me that sleep is a crucial in our ability to learn and make lasting memories. According to a recent study, sleep impacts information processing in three key ways:

  1. Sleep after learning saves memories. One of the three steps to moving information into our long term memories is consolidation that happens during sleep. If you don’t sleep within the first twenty four hours of learning something you don’t consolidate those memories.
  2. Sleep after learning integrates and inspires creativity. You know the expression, “just sleep on it?” When you sleep it allows your brain to move into a more diffused rather than focused state allowing you to see problems from different angles or get unstuck on a problem. Turns out than in almost every language there’s an expression for “sleep on a problem” indicating the clear relationship between sleep and problem solving.
  3. Sleep before learning helps you to learn and make lasting memories. During sleep, we experience “sleep spindles” a process that takes memories from the hippocampus into the cortex or long term memory center. Without adequate sleep, the brain doesn’t have time to process what we’ve learned and impacts the hippocampus, the area of the brain that stores memories. Walker compares this process to computing with the hippocampus acting like a USB stick with a limited amount of memory space and the cortex like a large hard drive. Without sleep, the USB stick is never emptied and doesn’t have room for new memories and therefore gets in the way of learning the next day. The results are rather staggering. For students who pull an all nighter, they have a 40% deficit in the ability of the brain to make new memories.

Additionally, Walker commented on the impact of technology in bedrooms citing three implications.

  1. Technology creates more anxiety as kids wait to get get responses to texts or interact with social media
  2. Technology contributes to sleep procrastination. We all know how easy it is to write one more text, look at one more website, etc.
  3. Technology alters our biorhythms. The blue wavelength emitted by our devices prevents the release of melatonin which in turn impacts our ability to fall asleep.

Overall, I walked away with a deep appreciation of the importance sleep plays in our ability to learn and retain information and how sleep needs to be prioritized just as much as homework!

For more details, watch Matthew’s presentation below.

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