Oh, joyful slumber, how you keep me warm and cosy all night long. You shut the world out and let me rest my weary body.

Sleep is something most people really enjoy. Some of us love it so much we indulge in it excessively (not naming names). What is the point of sleep though? Is it simply to rest our bodies and recuperate our energy for the next day? Yes it is but it turns out that’s not all it does. It plays a critical role in learning, who knew? There is so much more going on when we sleep that it is a wonder we rest at all.

There is some great wisdom and science behind the saying “why don’t you sleep on it?”

What’s going on when we sleep?

So, when we are resting so comfortably in our beds our mind is constantly whirring and changing states. Your body alternates between two main modes of sleep known as non-REM and REM sleep (REM stands for “rapid eye movement”) and yes that is where the band name comes from, one for the oldies amongst you readers, well the above 30’s. That’s old, right?

Anyway, I digress.

The first stage, known as non-REM sleep is when your body settles down and relaxes. Body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate and energy use all decrease. There are 4 different stages in this sleep mode. Light sleep is stage 1, onset is stage 2 and deep sleep is stages 3 and 4. This part of sleeping usually lasts about 60-90 mins. Once it is over your body moves into REM sleep.

REM sleep is much more energetic than non-REM sleep. The body remains immobile, however, behind the eyelids your eyes dart right and left; up and down. Your blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate fluctuate up and down. Blood flow to the brain increases sharply and this is when most dreaming occurs.  

Sleep and Memory

So, all this is going on as you sleep. This doesn’t seem too crazy or different to what you may have thought happens when you sleep. Well, sit back and learn just what your brain does when you are slipping off into dreamland.

It has been discovered that sleep plays a key role in memory. There have been a variety of studies that demonstrate how we have different forms of memories which are helped by different forms of sleep.

Firstly, there are Declarative memories . These are memories that can be consciously recalled such as facts and figures. Researchers now believe that slow wave sleep (SWS) plays a key role in this memory formation as well as being key in the preparation of memory encoding. It processes the memories as you sleep and consolidates any newly acquired information you may have taken in throughout the day.

Another form of memory is procedural memory . This is remembering “how” we might do things, such as playing the piano. Research shows that sleep plays a critical role in the formation of these memories. So, whenever you have learnt a new skill or way of doing something, sleep plays a crucial role in retaining that information and allowing you to recall it in the future.

The importance of dreams

There are many studies into sleep and learning that focus on dreaming. There has been research that suggests dreaming plays an active role in organising and ‘filing’ recently learned information. This process helps improve your memory and boosts your overall performance throughout the day.

How naps can always be justified

There have been odd occasions yours truly has enjoyed a cheeky little cat nap of an afternoon. Oh, the delights of settling down on the sofa to just let the eyes rest for a while. One of life’s guilty pleasures. Well, guilty no more, turns out naps are an incredibly useful productivity tool. There have been a variety of studies that demonstrate the value in taking a short 45-minute nap during the day. It can really help boost your performance for the rest of the day.

The effects of sleep deprivation

So, I have discussed how sleep can help improve your memory and learning but what about the other side, what if you aren’t getting enough, how can that affect you?

We all have a sense that sleep deprivation hinders our cognitive abilities to some degree. Well it does, it turns out that it can have a highly detrimental effect on your learning. When we haven’t managed to get enough rest, we find it harder to focus and hold our attention on anything for any significant amount of time. This makes it much more difficult to receive and retain any new information. In a sleep deprived state our neurons struggle to function properly and that hinders our ability to access previously held information. Not getting enough rest over a sustained period, not only has detrimental effects on our brain function, but also on our overall health. Muscles don’t get the rest they require and the bodies organs are working overtime.

So, in a nutshell sleep helps organise your thoughts, sorts through your memories and locks down the information you have taken in during the day. This demonstrates that good sleep is an essential step in the process of learning. Ensuring you have enough sleep will only enhance your memory and learning experience. If you don’t give enough time to sleep it will severely hinder your ability to learn new things, organise your thoughts and develop your skills.  

Therefore, the next time someone questions your sleeping habits tell them you are simply giving your body time to organise its thoughts and learn from what you have experienced today. Having said that I think there is a limit to the number of hours this remains effective, I don’t think you will become smarter the more hours you sleep. Well, I don’t think you will, hmmm…