Did you know that you can actually learn things in your sleep? It’s a process called sleep consolidation and it’s just one of the many cognitive benefits of a good night’s sleep.
There is a lot we don’t quite understand about sleep, but what we do know is that an alarming number of us aren’t getting enough of it. According to the Center for Disease Control, around 50-70 million adults in the United States struggle with some sort of sleep disorder. And it’s a problem we tend to ignore. When we get too busy with work or overloaded with the chores and demands of daily life, sleep is often the first thing to go, but maybe we should think twice about that.
Not getting enough sleep at night can lead to all sorts of problems both mild and severe. Sleeplessness can affect your sex drive, cause road accidents and even contribute to serious illnesses like heart disease and stroke. But, although these conditions are startling, the vast majority of those who have trouble sleeping have to deal with more low-level chronic side effects that, while sometimes difficult to pin down, can seriously disrupt your day to day life. Some of these issues include:
- Lack of Focus
- Diminished Alertness
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Difficulty Learning and Processing New Information
- Shorter Attention Span
Most of these problems have to do with memory in some way, which makes sense because the more we learn about sleep and sleep disorders, the more we discover the interesting ways in which sleep and memory are connected. One of which is the aforementioned process of sleep consolidation.
Consolidation is the part of the learning process in which new information is organized and made stable in the brain, and a large part of this process takes place during sleep. Studies have found that REM sleep elicits an increase in neuronal activity after learning something new. In other words if you’re working on a novel problem, or trying to learn a new language before bed, your brain essentially continues to practice while you sleep. But sleep consolidation only happens during deep restful sleep. Those who have trouble sleeping, or wake frequently during the night often don’t achieve long periods of REM sleep, meaning they can miss out on a large part of this important process, making it more difficult for them to learn new things and retain complex information overall.
Another way in which sleep and memory are connected has to do with procedural memory. Where the type of learning mentioned above is concerned with organizing and remembering fact-based information, procedural memory involves the learning and memorization of physical tasks. Everything from riding a bicycle, to playing the guitar, to piloting an aircraft requires memorization. We sometimes call this muscle memory, although it is in fact an entirely mental process, and this type of memory is also greatly improved by deep restful sleep.
Sleep deprivation is a complex problem. Aside from disrupting the all-important sleep consolidation process, it can impede our ability to focus, it can impair our decision-making processes and negatively impact our mood, all of which can affect our ability to learn new information, create meaningful memories and perform complex tasks and functions.
Still, because these problems are often slow to develop and difficult to quantify, sleep deprivation doesn’t get the attention it deserves. People can go years without noticing how their bad sleep habits are affecting their daily lives. All too often people attribute problems like irritability, lack of focus and difficulty concentrating, to situational disruptions (e.g. having a bad day, or a spat with a loved one), only to discover that after just a short period of really restful sleep, these problems seem to magically melt away. If you feel that your memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be, or you have trouble learning and remembering new things, look into changing your sleep habits. You’ll be surprised how much a little bit of quality sleep can seriously improve your mental acuity and overall quality of life.