It takes “sleep spindles” to download facts from your hippocampus to the thinking part of your brain. Bad news is, sleep spindles tend to happen later, rather than earlier in the night. So if you’re pushing the envelope, and cutting down on your sleep, you’re probably losing those facts you’re trying so desperately to remember.
When scientists hook up a sleeping brain – they observe bursts of very fast pulses of electrical activity during non-REM sleep. During an average night – there are up to 1000 sleep spindles.
Sleep spindles occur during stage 2 sleep. This is sleep that is not very deep and dreamless, it accounts for half of our sleeping hours and tends to occur in the second half of a sleep session.
Stuffing in facts
Researchers at Berkley experimented on 44 learners to find out more about these sleep spindles. They set up the learner’s day, so that it looked a lot like a typical school day. The day started with a big study session, in which they were required to learn lots of facts. So many, that the hippocampus would be “full”.
The hippocampus is a lot like the in box on your computer – it can hold a limited number of e-mails. Once it exceeds its storage capacity then the information starts bouncing out.
The learners stuffed enough facts in, to ensure the hippocampus was close to bursting. Pretty much what happens everyday in learning institutions.
The sleep experiment
The learners were then divided into two groups.
One group got to take a little siesta, 90 minute nap, while the rest stayed awake.
The learners all then went “back to school” in the evening, for a second round of fact learning. This is what happens when you have to do homework, study for a test – you might get to loaf a little in the afternoon, but you typically have to hit the books in a fact stuffing session in the evening.
The nappers remembered more facts
The researchers then tested both groups of learners, to see how well they were able to remember “the facts”.
The nappers, were able to stuff a little more into their heads in the evening session than those who pushed through the whole day.
The champion spindle spikers gobbled up facts
During the 90 minute nap, the nappers had been wired up to a machine, which measured electrical activity in their brains.
When the number of sleep spindles were counted up, those with more sleep spindles performed teh best in the second study session.
Sleep spindles are a file download
The experimenters concluded that sleep spindles are when the brain is shifting information (specifically fact-based memories), out of the hippocampus to other areas of the brain.
What does it mean ?
To maximize your learning of facts, you need to get as many sleep spindles into your day/night. Sleep is not a necessary evil, it is critical for learning success.Wake deterioration and sleep restoration of human learning Current Biology, 2011; 21 (5): R183, Bryce A. Mander, Sangeetha Santhanam, Jared M. Saletin, Matthew P. Walker.
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