How does sleep impact your learning?


Burning the midnight oil is a big part of student and working life. Under the stress of deadlines and examinations, many often pull all-nighters to stay on top of things. Sleep might seem like a small price to pay when you’re rushing through your workload, but sacrificing a good night’s sleep could have a strong impact on your learning abilities.

Sleep deprivation mainly leads to reduced memory skills, along with other things that can disadvantage your learning, such as lower levels of concentration, poor mental health and even increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in the long term.

How sleep impacts learning 1Photo: Active Health

Reduced memory skills

While learning different things requires various cognitive functions, memory consolidation is an essential function across the board. Memory consolidation is sleep-dependent, which means that it affects recall, where the brain accesses and utilises stored information, often by bringing memories to mind. Poor sleep affects the brain’s ability to retain factual information and procedural memories, which inhibits the learning of both academic subjects and non-academic skill. This can impact our declarative memory and our procedural memory. Declarative memory can be considered as the consciously accessible memories of fact-based information. Non-declarative memory is regarded as non-conscious and includes procedural memory – such as the learning of actions, habits and skills.

Getting insufficient sleep after a long day at school is definitely not the smartest way to get good grades. While you could repay the “sleep debt” to your body on other days, the most critical period for your memory is the sleeping hours that immediately follows a lesson. If you don’t sleep well, your brain will not be able to properly acquire, consolidate and retain the information gained during that lesson, which renders all your late-night mugging unproductive. By strengthening your memories, sleep helps to link older memories to newer ones, which can greatly aid in revision and the formation of analytical skills. You might be able to cram in a few more hours of work, but catching some quality sleep would be more beneficial for the learning process.

How sleep impacts learning 2Photo: Active Health

► JOIN US: Experiential Rest Better workshops led by Active Health Coaches


Different sleep stages can affect the different types of learning. There are four stages of sleep. The first stage is the lightest stage of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, where the brain wave activity is only beginning to slow down and you can be easily woken up. This lasts for only about 5-10 minutes. In stage 2 of NREM sleep, eye movements, brain waves and muscle activity decrease as the body heads towards deep sleep. Sleep spindles, which are spikes in brain waves produced during this stage, contribute to memory consolidation and sensory processing. Stage 3 and 4 of sleep is referred to as slow-wave sleep, where you will not likely be woken up. Muscles are completely relaxed and body temperature, blood pressure and breathing rate drop significantly. The body recovers physically during these two stages. The last stage of sleep is referred to as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, where you experience dreams. REM sleep benefits long-term memory consolidation.

Motor learning is influenced by stage 2 of NREM sleep, while visual learning depends on the amount and timing of both deep slow-wave sleep and REM sleep. REM sleep is also found to nurture creativity and problem-solving skills. Acquiring fact-based information after a language course in declarative memory is found to increase REM sleep in individuals. This is where dreaming occurs most frequently. REM sleep is critical for acquiring learned material, especially if the information is complex and emotionally charged. It also enhances the consolidation of procedural memory, which helps you remember how to do things.

It can be easy for youngsters to think of sleep as something that is eating into their time, but your brain actually works on your behalf as you sleep. It was found by the National Institute on Aging that memory retention is sleep-dependent in healthy young adults. Without sleep, the full impact of studying cannot be felt. However, older adults do not have the same overnight sleep benefit, making it harder for them to learn new things. This is because sleep quality naturally worsens as you age, which contributes to a deterioration in long-term memory.

Lower levels of concentration

The brain, like the rest of the body, needs rest to function fully. It goes without saying that sleep deprivation leads to sleepiness, which takes a toll on your mind. This manifests in lower levels of alertness and concentration, making it difficult to pay full attention to absorb new information. It is found that sleeping before learning is necessary to form the initial foundation of memories, as it prepares the brain to absorb new information and lay the structure for new memory traces. Lower focus also leads to a slower thought process, which makes it difficult to focus on tasks that require complex and logical reasoning as you could get easily confused. Not to mention that the lower levels of concentration could have you feeling extremely distracted. The bottom line is, skipping sleep will do you no favours when getting into the headspace for learning.

How sleep impacts learning 3Photo: Active Health

Poor mental health

Besides impairing the cognitive processes required for efficient learning, sleep deprivation also has a detrimental impact on your mood and mental health. This is exhibited in behavioural habits that are not conducive for learning. The lack of proper sleep could leave you feeling irritable, angry and lessens your ability to cope with stress. This makes you more prone to emotional outbursts, giving up and an overall negative attitude towards the task at hand.

According to National Sleep Foundation, 73% of adolescents who feel unhappy do not have enough sleep at night. Sleep deprivation results in a more depressed mood in adolescents, causing those who fall into that category to be more likely to report slipping grades. Not developing healthy sleep habits could also lead to many sleep-disruptive illnesses such as insomnia, which are directly linked to depression and anxiety.

Increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Your immediate concern could be picking up new skills now, but sleep deprivation could have a far more serious impact on your cognitive abilities and even increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease down the road. A study done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that sleep helps to clear beta-amyloid (aka the Alzheimer protein) from the brain. Sleep deprivation elevates levels of beta-amyloid in your brain by about 5% after losing a night of sleep. When accumulated over the years, the protein could damage vulnerable brain regions contributing to impaired brain function – namely the thalamus and hippocampus. Those who experience an increase in protein also experience worse moods after a night of sleep deprivation as the thalamus and hippocampus play a role in mood disorders. As significant a role as sleep plays in memory skills, memory problems are one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The link also goes both ways, as those with elevated beta-amyloid often have troubles sleeping.

It is established that sleep has an extremely positive relationship with learning, but how can you get better sleep amidst your busy schedule? Here are some tips and tricks for improving your sleep quality.

How sleep impacts learning 4Photo: Active Health

Setting a regular bedtime

The circadian rhythm, or nightly rhythm, is an internal body clock that repeats every 24 hours. It regulates when you sleep and when you wake. Hard-wiring a rhythmic environment in your body is necessary for optimum cognitive performance and function. Good sleep habits, such as having a regular bedtime, is recommended to be cultivated from young as learning is a life-long journey. While sleep deprivation impacts long-term cognitive abilities, sleep is especially beneficial for children and their learning. Instilling a regular bedtime in kids would ensure that they get sufficient shut-eye for their developing brains. Ingraining good sleep habits in children would allow them to follow through easily to adulthood, making them more aware of these habits even when it gets harder to stick to them.

Relaxing your brain

Falling asleep right after studying or working can be difficult due to the residual stress. Your mind could still be seeking out fresh stimulation after the constant stimulation of learning. Using your phone or checking social media could make it even harder for you to fall asleep as you are loading your brain with new information as you scroll. The blue light emissions from your screens can also delay the release of melatonin – the sleep-inducing hormone. Try taking a relaxing shower or meditating right before bed to unwind for quality sleep.

Afternoon naps

Daytime naps provide a robust benefit to both visual and motor skills development. In the case of visual skills learning, naps are also capable of restoring performance deterioration caused by repeated practices across the day. The effects of sleep are stronger in young children because their brains are still developing and they have more slow-wave sleep, which makes it easy for them to learn new things quickly. Not only does sleep help kids to recall information, it also changes the way they access that information. The brain becomes more flexible in retrieving memories by extracting only the important gist of it.

Short catnaps of about 20 minutes will allow you to reach Stage 2 sleep, which is the stage of sleep where your motor skills are recharged. Ideally, naps should be kept short to 20 to 30 minutes to avoid potential sleep inertia. Sleep inertia can leave you feeling groggy and disoriented for the rest of the day. Avoid napping too late in the day as it can disrupt your sleep at night and throw off your overall sleep pattern.

While naps can give you that extra boost for maximum productivity throughout the day, getting sufficient quality sleep by practising good sleeping habits comes first. Relying on naps to get you through the day is a no-no. If you find yourself constantly catching 'zzzs' in the middle of the day due to sheer exhaustion, it could be a signal of bigger sleep problems like insomnia.

How sleep impacts learning 5Photo: Active Health

Getting enough sleep is crucial for optimising the learning process and more importantly, for both your short-term and long-term health. The hours of sleep recommended by the National Sleep Foundation for children is 9-11 hours, 8-10 hours for teenagers, 7-9 hours for adults and 7-8 hours for seniors. If you’re having trouble tossing and turning at night, speak to our coaches to address your sleeping woes.

► READ: More articles and tips to Rest Better

Topics: Sleep, Rest Better