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Learning and Sleep

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Cast your mind back to your college days. Did you pull all-nighters, only to be too tired to perform well the next day? When we are young, we believe we can do without sleep. However, we need a good night’s sleep to enable our brains to function effectively. Let’s talk about learning and sleep

Sleep Protects the Brain

When we are awake, brain cells collect all kinds of stimuli. To process those stimuli, neurons convert fuel into energy, which, in turn, generates waste proteins. These proteins accumulate during the day while we go about our business. 

Recent research found that the brain’s glympathic system acts as a sort of plumbing system that flushes out cellular waste when we sleep. During this quiet time, neurons do not need as much oxygen because there is less activity, so blood flow slows down and cerebrospinal fluid rushes in and flushes toxins out. We wake up refreshed. 

However, when we are deprived of sleep for days, constant activity and toxin buildup cause brain cells to degenerate. Therefore, sleep deprivation negatively affects cognitive performance, long-term and working memory, and decision-making processes, among other functions. 

In other words, sleep is the brain’s way of keeping itself clean and healthy. 

Benefits of Sleep on the Brain 

So we already mentioned that the brain needs sleep to flush out toxins, but that is not the only benefit of sleep. 

During deep sleep, the slow electrical oscillations contribute to memory consolidation, during which new memories are transferred into the long-term memory storage. Research has found a connection between sleep deprivation and psychiatric and neurodegenerative conditions. 

Also, sleep is important for brain health because it helps regenerate parts of it so it can continue to function properly and possibly prevent the development of cognitive impairment.    

Sleep is the best meditation. Dalai Lama

Learning and Sleep 

Sleep plays a fundamental role in the learning process. During that downtime, your brain erases the less important bits of memory and strengthens the areas you want to remember. Think of this as a sort of housekeeping on the part of the brain. As you sleep, your brain goes over the tough bits by going over the neural paths to strengthen them. The neural pathways are the connections formed between brain cells; they form patterns that represent thoughts.   

Neuroscience research has shown that sleep enhances your ability to solve complex problems and understand the concepts you are trying to learn. 

During REM, the brain links together related memories, which may help with problem-solving. Brain waves slow down in the prefrontal cortex, allowing other areas of the brain to “talk” to one another. If you review what you are trying to learn just before going to sleep, you will probably dream about it and enhance your ability to understand and remember it. 

In other words, you must do some focused mode work by concentrating intently on the concept you are trying to learn in order to allow the diffuse mode of thinking to make wide-ranging and unexpected connections to help you home in on a solution. Put differently, you are literally sleeping on it.

Enough sleep helps your brain prepare for learning, and sleep after learning is vital to make that information stick in the brain’s architecture. A bad night’s sleep reduces your ability to learn by 40% because lack of sleep affects the hippocampus, the area of the brain where new memories are formed. 

Remember that good sleep habits go hand in hand with a healthy diet and physical exercise for a healthy brain. 

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