No matter your profession, learning and memory are key components in being successful at what you do. Perhaps you need to navigate the best route in rush hour traffic as an Uber driver, or learn new movements for your next class as a yoga teacher. You might have to manage multiple teams to run a complex sale. The above scenarios are all dependent on memory and cognitive functions, and by extension, the quality of your sleep.
Memory is encoding information from the world we live in, processing it, storing it, and retrieving it. But unlike a video camera recording an event, our memory does not function as an eidetic memory. Memories are shaped by previous experiences and knowledge. They can be reshaped, fine-tuned, and modified. It’s an organic process.
Logically, we might think that our memory is for the sake of remembering the past. I argue that we remember for the sake of preparing for the future. Memories help us to survive. Not only do they help us remember where to find food and recognize danger, but they also inform our social relationships. Group interactions and cooperation are foundations for human survival and success.
Sleep and the Learning Process
For many types of memories, practice is key. We learn it and repeat it until we’ve got it, but learning does not cease after we stop training. New memories can be fragile, and for them to stick long-term, they often need to be transferred to long-term storage sites in the brain. This is thought to occur during the so-called “offline processing,” which happens when we are no longer actively training, and can occur during wakefulness or during sleep. Many studies suggest that sleep has an advantage in processing memories after learning. Whether sleep has a stabilizing, restoring, or even enhancing effect is up for debate, and varies depending on memory type.
But what is it with sleep that has the potential to help us learn? Sleep isn’t uniform. It’s classified into different stages: stage 1 sleep, stage 2 sleep, slow-wave sleep, and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). Stage 1, stage 2, and slow-wave sleep are collectively referred to as non-REM sleep (NREM). Certain characteristics of NREM and REM sleep have been linked to memory processing though they likely support memory in different ways. During a regular night, we go through the sleep stages in a certain order, which in turn is repeated in several cycles. Early-night sleep cycles are more slow-wave sleep dense, whereas REM sleep increases closer to the morning. It’s likely that the processes occurring during the different sleep stages complement each other in supporting memory functions.
For many sleepers, dreams are a fascinating (and sometimes scary) part of the night. Dreams might also serve a function. A few studies suggest that dreaming of a newly learned task will result in larger performance gains at memory recall the next day.
Sleep Strengthens and Stabilizes Memory
Sleep seems to be important for strengthening and stabilizing a memory. What do you think would happen if you remembered everything you experienced during a day? Would that be useful? Memory is just as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. Brain processes during both NREM and REM sleep have been linked to forgetting. Ideally, we want to keep memories that are relevant for us in the future, but discard unnecessary ones, and sleep seems to be an important player here. In line with this, some studies suggest that sleep is important for extracting the gist and generalizing knowledge, even if this means that false memories are formed along the way.
Would it be easier to remember a customer’s name if she or he shared a name with your teenage crush? Memories related to an emotion, positive feedback, or that might be of future relevance have, in some studies, been favored during sleep. You can use this to your advantage. When you need to learn something, try to relate it to something that makes it easier for you to remember.
It is important to mention that although several studies support a sleep-specific role for memory functions, there are also studies that fail to show a sleep-specific effect on offline memory processing. Sometimes, the passage of time, irrespective of sleep or wake, might be as effective. The matter of sleep and memory is likely more complex than we can fully understand of with today’s knowledge. Hopefully, with time (and sleep?) we will be able to grasp the full picture of sleep’s role for learning and memory.
A quick memory and learning guide for working professionals:
- Give yourself time to learn. Trust the process and you will get better with practice, time and sleep.
- Practice, then take a break. Sleep on it or have a quiet rest, especially if you find the task difficult.
- Give yourself and your coworkers positive feedback after learning.
- If you are an employer, promote healthy work conditions, including regular breaks and respect for recovery time and healthy sleep habits. This will not only help your employees feel better and stay healthier, they may also perform better.
- Relieve your brain of unnecessary load. Write lists, keep a notebook ready next to your bed, use a calendar — whatever works for you. It might sound simple, but it can free up brain processing space for what’s important.
- Do what you can to wind down before bedtime — dim lights in the evening, do thing that make you calm, and create a sleep space that promotes relaxation.
- All sleep stages are important for memory functions, it’s not only early night or early morning sleep that’s important.
- We cannot control sleep or the memory-supporting processes that occur during sleep. We can only control the conditions surrounding sleep. Stressing over sleep is counterproductive and stress in bed does not aid learning. Healthy sleep habits are good preparation for future learning.