The Effect of Sleep on Learning and Memory

Apr 20, 2016
Tagged with: The Effect of Sleep on Learning and Memory

Can you imagine life without the ability to learn? Think about it. Our whole way of life would change. We would stumble through life without ever doing any intricate tasks or contemplating complex questions. We wouldn’t be human. Our ability to learn to a high level is what allows us to live the way we are accustomed to. It’s part of what makes us human. So what is the effect of sleep on learning and memory?

In this case, being educated should not be confused with the ability to learn. While learning has obvious influence on education, we are all learners who are learning all the time, all throughout our lives.

One of the most influential factors to our learning ability is sleep. Understanding how can allow you to use sleep to your advantage. How exactly does it influence our learning?

Sleep impacts on our ability to learn in two distinct ways: it affects how well we can absorb information, and it contributes to the consolidation of memory.

The first of these is much more obvious. If you are sleep deprived, doing just about anything is a challenge, let alone trying to learn something. This is because there is a direct relationship between quality of sleep and cognitive ability. Our ability to focus, pay attention to details, problem solve and be creative is affected by sleep. These are all contributors to learning ability. Have you ever tried learning something after a sleepless night? It is not easy.

The second way sleep impacts on our learning ability is memory consolidation. One of the goals of the learning process is to turn newly learnt skills or information into memory. Once it is stored in your memory, it can be said that it has been learnt. Much of this process of turning short term memories into long term memories happens while we sleep. Exactly how and in which phase of sleep this happens is not fully understood. However it is thought that different stages of the sleep cycle are responsible for the consolidation of different types of memory. For example, slow wave sleep (deep sleep) is thought to contribute to the processing and consolidation of freshly acquired information. Other more emotionally based memories are believed to be consolidated during the lighter phase of sleep known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which is also associated with dreaming (Harvard Medical School).

Knowing how sleep impacts on your ability to learn can be very powerful because it allows you to use it to your advantage. Consider an average student as an example. A common trend among students is to stay up late studying new material. Many students even “pull an all nighter” in which they stay up all night trying to learn something. It could actually be much more beneficial to go to sleep. In fact studies have shown that memory can be boosted by sleep (Psych Central).

Have you noticed how much a good night’s sleep can affect your learning ability? Have you ever tried using it as a learning technique? Perhaps not, but the effect of sleep on learning and memory show that sleep is very important, and most definitely is not a waste of time.

Author: Nick Hasche



  • bobl07

    Sleep is so under rated and yet so valuable. I know that my day is very much dependent on sleep rather than coffee. Thanks for letting us know how valuable.

  • Nick Hasche

    Yes it is amazing how undervalued it is. We spend hundreds of dollars every year on coffee and energy drinks when instead we could just pay more attention to our sleep.