Leveraging Sleep for Learning
No time to sleep!
Exam tomorrow morning? Cramming for that weekly organic chem quiz or quarterly presentation? Faced with such challenges, most people play Robin Hood – stealing hours from their sleep to give to their studies. Sure, everyone knows you should try and get a good night’s sleep. But the night before the MCAT or LSAT, who has the confidence to just lie back and sleep?
Well, not only should you have more confidence in the learning-enhancing properties of sleep. There are simple strategies you can implement to tip the balance even more in your own favor.
Sleep & Learning
You’re probably familiar with the idea of “learning curves” and how quickly our memories can fade. Well over 100 years ago, scientists realized that sleep can increase the time it takes for us to forget things and even strengthen those memories.
But sleep can do even more than just reinforce memories. People have been known to solve complicated dilemmas in their sleep and even improve skills more than they would by a full day’s practice, just by getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep continues functioning as a learning enhancer throughout our entire lifespans – even infants of 6-16 months learn new word meanings or actions if they nap afterwards.
At the simplest level, a good night’s sleep is essential to retaining information. In fact, whether a medical student has good sleep habits is one of the strongest indicators in predicting their final grades.
There’s been a push recently to maximize sleep’s positive effects on learning, beyond normal limits; some experts have even been promoting relatively new, unstudied medications. But there are also exciting, non-medication-based breakthroughs you can start implementing now (or the next time you’re packing a semester’s worth of material into a few days).
Fortunately this is one of the great areas where you can change things around really easily. There are a number of options that will start working on the night you start using them!
For additional learning benefits of sleep to really kick in, you need to study within three hours of going to sleep. There’s still value in learning during the day, but doing a quick review about an hour before bed will help you maximize the educational power of sleep.
2. Nap away, my friend
Remember kindergarten naptime, trying desperately to keep your eyes closed for 25 minutes while lying on a towel on the floor in a darkened classroom every afternoon? It’s not just children who benefit from daytime naps. Even a brief daytime siesta can improve memory in adults. But keep in mind: These can never substitute for an entire night’s sleep, which will always be more important.
3. Cue the memory enhancements
In one experiment, a daytime computer memory game was accompanied by the smell of roses. Participants who were exposed to the sweet scent again while they slept performed better on the game than those who weren’t. While scent is more powerful, sounds played while learning and again during the night can have a similar effect.
4. Think carrot, not stick
Interestingly, in several studies, subjects who knew they’d be tested the next morning did better than those who didn’t. If you’ve already followed the advice above, think positively and expect to perform well the next morning. It just might increase your chances of actually performing well.
5. Train your brain
External electric stimulation (to the forehead), the right type of noise (pink noise) and even careful hypnosis can all improve the naturally slow sleep rhythms that are the most important for sleep and learning. In addition to the myriad sleep apps available, there are some great apps that generate pink noise (similar to white noise, only it sounds a bit more like running water) to play while sleeping.
Good luck and happy, healthy sleeping.