How Naps Improve Memory and Learning
Nothing is worse than going through the day when you’re tired. You have trouble with focus, working on project, and remembering to do just about everything. At least I know I do.
Focusing on daily tasks gets interrupted by thoughts of laying down and closing my eyes.
Whether it was your kids screaming at 3am, or just an unplanned weekend bender, sometimes a nap is exactly the thing we need.
We usually think of naps as something we do to catch up on sleep. However, there’s another thing that naps are amazing at.
Helping us learn.
Research tells us that sleep and memory are inextricably linked. It has shown strong associations with improved academic scores and the ability to recall memories.
Even though we’ve known this for some time, studies have only recently looked at how shorter sleep periods during the day can help our cognitive abilities.
Some people have the notion that napping is lazy, but it can actually help memory and learning in a big way. How much might surprise you.
Axel Mecklinger and his colleagues found significant results when they conducted a study on napping. Their findings were even published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.
“Even a short sleep lasting 45 to 60 minutes produces a five-fold improvement in information retrieval from memory.”
The research team focused on the hippocampus. An area of the brain responsible for putting memories into long term storage where we can get at them.
In particular they studied what researchers call a “sleep spindle”. Which is a rapid burst of neuron activity that is involved in memory storage. They noticed the more sleep spindles a person had after learning information, the stronger their memory.
The experiment was fairly simple. The participants were required to study both single words and word pairs. They were then immediately tested to see how much they had learned.
Next the scientists had one group sleep for 45 minutes to an hour, while the other group watched a DVD. After, they were once again tested to see how much they had retained from what they learned.
The results showed that the sleeping group had actually forgotten very little, as opposed to the group that stayed up. Axel elaborates on this:
“The memory performance of the participants who had a power nap was just as good as it was before sleeping, that is, immediately after completing the learning phase.”
So following the study, what does Axel recommend? He says this:
“A short nap at the office or in school is enough to significantly improve learning success. Wherever people are in a learning environment, we should think seriously about the positive effects of sleep.
Enhancing information recall through sleeping doesn’t require us to stuff bulky tomes under our pillow. A concentrated period of learning followed by a short relaxing sleep is all that’s needed.”
Before and After
Not everyone has 45 minutes to an hour to nap. But it’s a trick that anyone in school can easily apply. Just learn a chunk of material right before a good snooze. This could obviously be used in any siutation in which you need to learn material, though.
Hold on, though, because there’s more to the story. It can benefit memory and learning in another way as well.
While the previous study said napping right after learning helps memory formation, research from University of California says that it can also help learning after a nap as well.
The reasons behind this are completely different, but the result is the same. Better memory and a boost to your learning ability.
Matthew Walker is an assistant professor of psychology at Berkley, and the man behind the study. His findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science in 2010.
Matthew, unlike the previous study, decided to set the experiment up in a way where the students learned after a nap.
Students began by performing an intense learning activity. The scientists were intentionally trying to give brains a workout. Particularly the brain’s hippocampus.
The hippocampus plays an important role in memory and learning. Which is an excellent target when studying the effects of napping. And the end of the learning task both groups performed at the same level.
A short while later the participants were split into two groups. The first group napped for 90 minutes, while the other stayed awake.
They were then put through another intense learning exercise, approximately 6 hours after the first task.
What Matthew and his team saw was that students who remained awake were worse at learning the new material than on the previous task.
And the nappers?
They outperformed their peers who stayed awake. They even improved their capacity to learn.
These findings have led the scientists to believe that sleep is needed to clear short term memories from storage. So the brain can be allowed to take in new information.
Clearing Your Mental Cache
Okay, so Matthew has given us some scientific evidence showing us that our ability to learn increases after a nap as well.
What’s going on under the hood?
In previous research, Matthew has looked at the practice of pulling all-nighters. His team has shown the longer we stay awake reduces that amount of incoming information we can learn. By as much as 40 percent.
Other research in the field back up their claim. And they’ve noticed it’s caused by a shutdown of certain regions in the brain when we’re sleep deprived.
They believe that fact based memories are stored in the hippocampus until they can be moved to long term storage. They even have proof that this memory clearing process occurs during a certain stage of sleep.
Memories get moved from the memory center to long term storage during what experts call stage 2 sleep. It takes place between deep sleep and our dream state – also known as REM sleep.
Sleep researchers didn’t previously know what the purpose of stage 2 sleep was for. Even though we spent about half of our sleep time in that state. Now we have a better clue of what’s going on.
While naps can significantly boost our learning, these two studies use pretty long nap times. From 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
Some of you may not even consider that a nap. Or be able to find that kind of time in your day. We usually think of naps as something much shorter.
Sleep researchers say there are still some benefits to shorter amounts of shut-eye, though. But those benefits won’t be nearly as strong.
A quick 10 to 30 minute nap has been known to improve your energy and alertness. Considering attention and focus is an important part of learning, this should allow you to at least pay better attention to incoming information.
It has also been shown to reduce stress, especially for those suffering from sleep deprivation. And when the brain is stressed, whatever the reason, it’s ability to process information slows down.
Catching a Wink
I’m a big believer in learning something new every day. And when it comes to learning and memory the jury is in. Naps help you store information, recall memories, and improve your learning ability.
The same goes for any kind of sleep really. Not really surprising, as we spend about a third of our lives with our eyes closed.
So whether your a child, student, or just a life long learner, you can benefit from naps. They’re an important and integral part of giving your brain an edge in remembering and using the information you learn.