It’s been said that over the course of our life we will spend a third of our time asleep. Well, what a complete and utter waste of time if you ask me!
Imagine all the things you could do with that amount time – you could write that novel you’re always talking about, or you could rewatch all of Game of Thrones, again.
Flippancy aside, sleep is of course essential. Good quality sleep in fact has countless benefits for our physical and mental health.
And just because we are unconscious doesn’t mean our brain has stopped working. Far from it. Unencumbered by the need to stop us from walking into walls or putting our hand in the fire, our brain can actually concentrate on important processes. Such as our ability to retain and recall information.
What’s more, an increasing number of studies have been published that suggests we may be able to actively use our slumber time more wisely to improve the ways we study and learn new skills, otherwise known as sleep learning.
Read on below to find out more…
The link between napping and recall
Sleep is vital for learning. A well-rested brain has greater processing power than a tired mind. With a good night’s rest behind it, the brain has a greater ability to both collect and retain new information, a process known to neuroscience as ‘acquisition’. And a better ability to recall that information, more accurately, at a later date.
This ability to recall information – which focuses on long-term memory – is linked to a process called ‘consolidation’. When you nap, your brain reactivates, and replays events just gone; selecting those it deems important and jettison those it thinks are redundant. This process helps strengthen new neural connections and make them stick.
So, if you’ve just read a particular hard chapter in your calculus book, try having a power nap afterward. You’ll be surprised how much more your mind will take in, and remember.
And the power of the nap doesn’t just extend to book learning. If you have been studying a new tennis swing, juggling trick or dance move, having a nap soon after will increase the likelihood of these physical skills being retained also.
The effect of napping and recall is even more pronounced when it involves children. One study conducted around word learning and napping showed that kids who had a nap after hearing the words retained their newly acquired knowledge significantly better than other children who remained awake.
All hail the power of the power nap!
Language acquisition in adults
The debate is still ongoing whether it is possible to learn completely new information while we sleep. If you’ve ever fallen asleep at the back of the lecture hall you will be painfully aware of this.
One small study suggests it is indeed possible to learn new information but what a more conclusive group of studies suggest however is that we can use sleep to enhance our ability to recall information already learned. This is especially useful when you are attempting to learn a new foreign language.
A team of Swiss researchers took a group of German speakers into their lab and put them through a Dutch language course. After digesting some vocabulary the students were allowed a three-hour nap during which a recording of the words they had just studied was played on repeat.
Compared to a control group the students showed a 10% increase in the number of words they could recall. Which is pretty impressive.
To ensure this result was linked to sleep and not just to do with the particular group of students. The researchers had a separate group listen to the same recording while walking. The walkers were much less successful in recalling words than the sleepers.
A follow-up study by the same team of researchers showed the limits of this form of sleep learning. In this new experiment, new words the students had yet to study while awake were included in the recording. While the students again showed an improvement in recall for words they had previously studied, they showed no upturn in recall for words they were unfamiliar with.
In a similar experiment to the Swiss language study, individuals were taught to play a set of guitar melodies then asked to take a nap. One group of the subjects slept in silence while unbeknownst to them another group had the melodies played back to them as they slept.
The group who heard the melodies while they rested then demonstrated a much greater ability to play the melody back than the control group.
So, there you have it – it does appear if we want to, we can all make much better use of the time we spend asleep. No more dreaming of unicorns and rainbows, instead let us get proactive about this – we could all be speaking fluent Japanese by morning time!