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How Sleep Impacts Memory, Learning & Problem Solving

Posted by Pip Jarvis on

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Ever lost your train of thought mid-conversation, struggled to master a new computer program, or forgotten someone’s name? You could be correct in blaming lack of sleep. A growing area of research, the link between sleep and cognitive function is under the spotlight again this national Sleep Awareness Week.

Running from 5-11 August, this year’s program, run by the Sleep Health Foundation, brings together the latest research and expert insights around the theme of ‘Sleep on it—memory and problem solving’.

If you’re interested in learning how lack of sleep impacts memory, learning and problem solving, read on. (And don’t forget to follow the Sleep Awareness Week action on Facebook and Twitter.)

How sleep improves memory and learning

Experts agree that getting enough good quality sleep is crucial for learning new skills and soaking up new knowledge. In fact, it is equally important both before and after exposure to new information. Here’s why.

When we are well-rested, we’re more alert and better able to concentrate and process information. We’re also generally in a more positive mood, which makes us more open to learning something new. This is known as the ACQUISITION stage.

As any student would know, a good night’s sleep (e.g. before an exam) can also help us retain new knowledge. This is because our hard-working brains replay the day’s events and strengthen our neural connections as we sleep. In this way, sleep has an important memory CONSOLIDATION function, helping new knowledge to ‘stick’.    

From learning how to ride a bike to memorising the states of the USA, it’s interesting to note that different sleep stages are involved in forming different types of memory.

How sleep enhances creativity and problem-solving

When we’re wrestling with a problem or tough decision, we’re often told to ‘sleep on it’. And it appears there may be some wisdom in that advice. Sufficient sleep has been shown to boost creativity, and many people report having their best ideas upon waking up.

In a recent article for Psychology Today, clinical psychologist and ‘Sleep Doctor’ Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. says, “REM sleep in particular appears to be especially important to creative thinking and inspiration. (Remember, REM is the time when we dream most actively and vividly.) You get REM in segments throughout the night, each time you move through a complete sleep cycle. But periods of REM become longer as the night progresses, and your heaviest doses occur in the last third of a night’s sleep. If you shortchange your sleep time, you risk missing out on the creativity-boosting effects of REM.”

More reasons to get more sleep

As well as making us learning, memorising, problem-solving machines, sleep is important for various facets of our physical and emotional wellbeing. If you're not already inspired to hit the sack early tonight, here are a few more reasons to make sure you’re getting enough good quality sleep.

  • You’ll have more energy
  • You’ll enjoy increased mental clarity
  • You’ll have better relationships
  • You’ll be more productive
  • You’ll be more likely to stick to an exercise routine (which has further knock-on benefits for your wellbeing)
  • You’ll find it easier to manage your weight
  • You’ll be happier and less irritable
  • You’ll reduce the risk of some chronic diseases
  • You’ll reduce your heart attack risk
  • You’ll eat more mindfully (and be less likely to reach for unhealthy food options)
  • You’ll be less likely to be depressed
  • You’ll be less anxious
  • You’ll have increased immunity

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