Shh. If you catch learners snoozing through your training, you might not want to wake them up.
Many studies have confirmed that sleep can help consolidate memories, helping learners remember new information more effectively the next day.
Additional research has found that even a little siesta can help. For example, if you learned something new this morning, chances are you’d do better on a quiz this evening if you take a nap at lunchtime.
But is it really sleep that’s improving your memory — or is it just the additional time to reflect on and process the information? How important is sleep to learning new skills?
The sleep-learning connection
A recent study has shed light on how our brains deal with new information while asleep. And it highlights the strong connection between learning and sleep.
Researchers from the University of Bristol in the U.K. were interested in what exactly goes on in the brain after we learn something new, so they decided to closely monitor learners’ brain activity as they slept.
The researchers found that a sleeping brain does indeed grapple with the new information learned during the day. In fact, the brain in effect replays the important information from the day over again in fast-forward to solidify it in memory.
This sleep-induced activity occurs in the hippocampus region of the brain, which the researchers liken to our central database for memories. And the replay process doesn’t just strengthen memories; it also strengthens the connections between nerve cells. The brain is essentially building the connections needed for new learning while we sleep.
A subsequent study found another strong link between learning and sleep. Researchers found that the same neurons that are responsible for consolidating memory are the ones that help us fall sleep.
As the lead researcher of the study put it, “It’s almost as if [the neurons] were saying ‘Hey, stay awake and learn this.’ Then, after a while, the neurons start signaling to suppress that section [of the brain], as if to say ‘you’re going to need sleep if you want to remember this later.’”
When sleep goes wrong
The research notes that getting too little sleep during periods of learning can impair our ability to retain what we’ve learned. Lack of sleep is tied to many workplace challenges, including lower productivity, higher stress and greater risk of error. We can now add “poor training results” to that list.
But it’s not just quantity – it’s quality too. Researchers state that our emotional well-being can affect our quality of sleep, and thereby affect our memories. If a learner is overly stressed or worried about work, that has a domino effect that can affect everything from their sleep, to job performance, to how much they take away from their training experience.
Assuming you don’t really want people sleeping during training, here are some suggestions for putting this research to use.
Make learners aware of the importance of sleep. The importance of a good night’s sleep is well known, but your learners may not know its role in retaining new knowledge and growing their skills. Tell them about the research and encourage them to turn in early the night after a training session.
Take the pressure off. Learning experiences should be environments where learners can experiment and ask questions without fear of failure. Consider making training goals separate from performance goals, at least at the start of a training experience. If learners feel pressured or stressed during learning, they’ll likely carry that home with them and run the risk of remembering less of what they need to know.
Sources: Haynes, P. R., Christmann, B. L. and Griffith, L. C. (2015). A single pair of neurons links sleep to memory consolidation in Drosophila melanogaster. eLife, doi: 10.7554/eLife.03868. Sadowski, J. H., Jones, M. W. and Mellor, J. R. (2016). Sharp-wave ripples orchestrate the induction of synaptic plasticity during reactivation of place cell firing patterns in the hippocampus. Cell Reports, 14(8), 1916-29.
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