Last updated: 17.03.22

How sleep can help us learn

Neuroscientists and sleep scientists have made big leaps into understanding exactly how we sleep and the tremendous benefits we gain from it. From improving our immune system and metabolic rate to boosting our creativity and helping us learn, the benefits to our physical and mental wellbeing are numerous.

As you can imagine, we are especially interested in the latter two – how sleep can improve our creativity and our ability to learn. In this article, we’ll explain the different stages of sleep and the role they play when it comes to learning, as well as the importance of getting a full good night’s sleep. You’ll realise that there isn’t an approach which will give you the benefits whilst also allowing you to skimp on your sleep!

What's covered in this article?

Stages of sleep and the sleep cycleHere we give a brief summary of the different types of sleep – non-REM and REM – and the sleep cycle
How sleep helps us learnFind out four ways that sleep boosts our creativity and helps us learn
Don't skimp on your sleep if you want to learnDiscover why it’s important to get a full night’s sleep
The impact of sleep deprivationWhy sleep deprivation impacts how we learn
How to get a good night's sleepOur online guide is here to help.

Stages of sleep and the sleep cycle

Essentially, sleep is a memory aid for learning. It’s brilliant in that it both prepares our brains for making new memories – learning new information – as well as helping to cement and solidify memories and knowledge once we’ve learnt. But, not just that, it also helps with our creativity and the development of motor skills.

But to understand exactly how sleep does this, we must first discuss the different types and stages of sleep and the sleep cycle, as they all have an important part to play.

Our sleep can be broken into two types of sleep – non-REM and REM. REM means ‘rapid eye movement’ and refers to the eye movement (or lack of) that occurs. So, to put it simply, in REM sleep our eyes are rapidly moving from side to side, whereas in non-REM sleep they aren’t. But there’s a lot more to each than that difference!

Non-REM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep)

There are four stages to non-REM sleep, which are simply referred to as stages 1-4. Stages 1-2 are lighter non-REM sleep, and stages 3-4 are deep non-REM, or ‘slow wave’ sleep, referring to the slow, powerful brain waves which are present. Non-REM sleep plays an important part in how we learn, as it helps with making, retaining and forgetting memories, as well as cleansing our memory banks, essentially making space to hold new information.

REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep)

REM is the most active part of sleep and is a key part in our creativity and problem-solving abilities. It is often called ‘dream sleep’, as it’s in this stage that most of our dreaming occurs. It’s also the stage of sleep where our brain is at its most creative and active. In fact, it’s more active than when we’re awake!

Sleep spindles

Sleep spindles refer to the brain wave activity that occurs during stages 2-4 of non-REM sleep, but are especially dominant in stage 2. They are short bursts of faster brain activity and can work in coordination with the slower waves of deep non-REM sleep. You’ll see they are involved in memory processing as well as in our ability to learn motor tasks.

Sleep cycle

We cycle through these different stages throughout the night, and though internal clocks differ from person to person (this is why some people are ‘morning larks’ and others are ‘night owls’), everyone’s cycle roughly works in the same way. The first half of our sleep cycle is predominately non-REM sleep with shorter bursts of REM sleep, but, as you move into the second half of the night, the ratio shifts and REM sleep becomes the dominant type.

But it’s important to realise that this cycle does not automatically start from the beginning no matter what time you go to sleep – it is also linked to time of day. So, if you usually go to bed around 10pm, but one night you don’t get to bed until 2am, that night you’ll miss out on most of the non-REM sleep that occurs in the first half of your sleep cycle, and you’ll mainly have the REM sleep. This is important, as you’ll see that missing out on any parts of sleep will have an impact on how you learn.

How sleep helps us learn

1. Setting you up to learn the next day

One of the ways sleep helps is that it sets you up for learning the next day. It does this by restoring the brain’s capacity for learning, and making room for new memories – essentially setting your brain up to be able to soak up new information and lay down new memory paths.

But how does it do this? During the night, the brain shifts fact-based memories from our short-term memory to our long-term memory through the use of the sleep spindles that occur in stage 2 of non-REM sleep, and occur in the later hours of your sleep cycle. They essentially cleanse your brain’s short term memory creating more space to store new facts, and without this activity your short-term memory would become overwhelmed and you wouldn’t be able to obtain new information.

2. Consolidating what you’ve learnt

But it doesn’t just help refresh your memory banks, it helps consolidate memories too and protect against forgetting newly acquired information.

This benefit is down to the slow waves of deep non-REM sleep which occur early in the night. During this stage of sleep these slow waves help move new memories and consolidate them into the long-term memory (working in coordination with the sleep spindles as discussed above). Much research has focused on this, and it has been discovered that the more deep non-REM sleep you get, the higher the accuracy in what you remember.

But the benefits don’t stop there. Non-REM sleep can also help recover memories that appear to have been lost shortly after learning, essentially helping you regain access to memories that you struggled to recall whilst you were awake. It’s why we sometimes get that ‘Ah, yes, I remember now’ moment once we’ve woken up.

3. Learning motor skills

Sleep also has a positive impact on our ability to learn motor skills – any skill or task which requires our body to move and function in a certain way, such as walking, riding a bike, or playing the piano - and has been shown to improve the skills that you have practiced during the day.

Again, it’s down to your sleep spindles – the ones found in the lighter stage 2 of your non-REM sleep and are richest in the last two hours of your sleep. Whilst you sleep the sleep spindles will increase over the areas of the brain that have been working hardest with learning during that day, which seems to enhance your motor skill. In fact, the great number of sleep spindles over that area the better the performance on waking. So, for example, if you were learning the piano and had practised a certain piece, after a good night’s sleep, you will see the accuracy of the piece improve when you return to your practice the next day. Incredible really!

4. Boosts creativity and problem solving

And, lastly, it plays a big a part in our creativity. You may be surprised to hear that many well-known creations have come down to REM sleep and the dreams that occur. This includes the guitar riff in The Rolling Stones’ song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, which Keith Richards composed in his sleep, and the novel Frankenstein, the inspiration of which came to Mary Shelley in a dream.  

And how does this happen? In short, during REM sleep, our brains survey all the stored information and recognise the diverse combinations they can work together, essentially finding all the creative possibilities there are. It is why it plays a crucial role in problem solving too.

As Matthew Walker, neuroscientist and author of bestselling book Why We Sleep¸ so eloquently writes: “It is sleep that builds connections between distantly related informational elements that are not obvious in the light of the waking day. Our participants went to bed with disparate pieces of the jigsaw and woke up with the puzzle complete. It is the difference between knowledge (retention of individual facts) and wisdom (knowing what they all mean when you fit them together). Or, said more simply, learning versus comprehension. REM sleep allows your brain to move beyond the former and truly grasp the latter.”

It is probably no coincidence that the phrase “sleep on it”, which we say when we’re trying to make a decision, is common throughout many languages – it perfectly captures the necessary role of sleep when thinking of new solutions or finding answers to our problems.

Don’t skimp on your sleep if you want to learn

So, what do we need to do to give our brains the best chance to learn effectively? The time to sleep – preferably between 7-9 hours a night (for an adult).  

Hopefully this doesn’t come as a surprise, as all the important work we’ve discussed occurs throughout a full night’s sleep, some in the earlier hours and some in the later hours. Therefore, we think it’s important to try and break habits such as working too late into the night, or getting early mornings to try and get a good start on the day, as we are only doing a disservice to our own learning and development.

The impact of sleep deprivation

But we can’t talk about the positive benefits of sleep, without addressing the impact impaired sleep or sleep deprivation can have on us too. And it isn’t just because we won’t be getting the memory aid that sleep provides, but lack of sleep negatively affects our ability to focus and concentrate, as well as our motivation and emotional control – all necessary components to learning.

How to get a good night’s sleep

But there are ways you can improve your sleep and give you a better chance of getting a good night’s sleep. From sticking to a sleep schedule to understanding your natural sleep rhythm, there is a lot you can try, and we have shared numerous ideas in our sleep guide. Download the guide now.