Part 2 - How Lack of Sleep Affects Learning
To read part one, click here.
For optimal learning and memory function, it is essential to get adequate amounts of sleep.
It is not fully understood how sleep, memory and learning are interrelated. However, it is evident from studies conducted on animals and humans that the amount and quality of sleep impact memory and learning in very important ways. It is hard to separate out “learning” and “memory” since learning depends upon remembering what you have learned. We know from research that learning and memory are affected by sleep in two specific areas.
First, learning cannot optimally take place in a sleep-deprived individual because of his inability to maintain focused attention; therefore he is unable to learn in an efficient manner.
Second, as mentioned earlier, sleep is needed for memory consolidation, which is necessary for new learning to take place.
The role sleep plays in the study of learning and memory formation has been observed by researchers in two ways.
The first way is to monitor the response to learning a selection of new tasks during the various stages of sleep and the changes in the lengths of each stage.
The second way is to observe how the various types of sleep deprivation affect learning. The deprivation can be total (subject is allowed no sleep at all), partial (sleep deprivation during either early or late stage), or selective (sleep deprivation at selected stages).
There are different types of memory required for different learning situations. Researchers are attempting to determine if a relationship exists between the different stages of sleep and consolidation of different types of memories.
Early sleep and memory research studied fact-based information (called “declarative” memory), such as factual things learned, like states’ capitals. One study followed subjects learning an intensive language course. The subjects showed increased rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, where dreams most often occur.
It was hypothesized that to acquire learned material, REM sleep is essential. Later studies indicate that if information is emotionally charged and involved, REM sleep comes into play in the declarative, fact-based memory process, but unlikely if information is simple and not emotionally charged.
More recent hypotheses indicate that the deep, restorative slow wave sleep (SWS), by consolidating information newly acquired, is largely involved in declarative memory; however, the link between declarative memory and sleep shows some mixed results and more research is needed.
With regard to learning new motor skills requiring coordination and performance, sleep is an essential ingredient.
REM sleep appears to be critical in “procedural” memory learning consolidation—that requiring “how” to do a task (such as learning to drive a standard shift automobile or playing an instrument). Light stages of sleep are involved in motor learning, and the amount and duration of slow wave sleep (SWS) and REM sleep affects certain kinds of visual learning.
The sleep-deprived individual experiences a loss of attention and focus. Vigilance starts to drift, and information becomes harder to acquire. Overworked neurons can’t coordinate information as they normally would, so access to previously learned information gets blocked.
Chronic sleep deprivation affects our performance. Neurons may fire haphazardly and the body’s muscles are not rested. Organ systems do not function harmoniously. As we lose focus, we can find ourselves prone to accidents and injuries.
Mood is also affected in a negative way and that can affect acquisition of new information and our ability to recall the learning we have acquired.
There is a split among researchers as to how significant is the impact of sleep deprivation on memory and learning. In rat studies, the rats who had been deprived of REM sleep (selectively) often showed worse performance on tasks they had learned. Researchers hypothesized that REM sleep is vital for memory consolidation of these tasks for the rats. But some have countered that the differences in learning may be due to the rats’ overall lack of being well-rested, rather than specifically due to lack of REM sleep.
There is still much debate but the bulk of the evidence from research suggests that adequate daily, good-quality sleep is important for memory and learning. The different stages of sleep are involved with consolidation of different types of memory formation. Sleep deprivation plays a part in the reduction of one’s learning ability.
If there is only one thing you take away from this article (and Part 1), it is that sleep desperately affects both Learning and Memory. Get some sleep.