About effective learning (Part 5): Sleep on it

Oh that’s gotta be my favorite!

I am sure you heard that expression before, especially in a situation where you want to make a decision and you don’t seem to be able to come up with the right one, some people will tell you to sleep on it. I used to hear it before but I didn’t know that it was actually scientifically proven that sleep can help you learn better and come up with good ideas.

We spend a third of our lives asleep. This is an inexorable law of life. It also applies to animals and vegetable kingdoms. Joseph Murphy states in his book “The power of your subconscious mind” that sleep is a divine law, and that many answers to our problems come to us when we are sound asleep upon the bed. It had been found that lack of sleep can cause you to become irritable, moody, and depressed. Talking about the importance of sleep, the reasons why we need it so much can be the subject of a separate series of posts (Let me know in the comment section if you want me to do that). But, let’s just focus for now on how does sleep help with the learning process.

“Another startling effect of self-deprivation was its attack on human memory and perception. Many sleep-deprived subjects were unable to retain information long enough to relate it to the task they were supposed to perform. They were befuddled in situations requiring them to hold several factors in mind and act on them, as a pilot must when he skillfully integrates wind direction, airspeed, altitude, and glide path to make a safe landing”

reported by Joseph Murphy in the book The power of your subconscious mind.

He also reports some stories of people who were able to solve problems, to come up with creative ideas in their sleep. He says that “If you are writing a novel, play, or book, or are working on an invention, speak to your subconscious mind at night and claim boldly that its wisdom, intelligence, and power are guiding, directing and revealing to you the ideal play, novel, book, or revealing the perfect solution, whatever it may be. Wonders will happen as you pray this way”. I read this and I was like Okaaay, interesting but how does it work? What happens in my mind when I sleep? And how can my 6 to 8 hour night sleep or my 20 minutes nap be helping me learn better and more effectively, and not be considered as a form of total laziness like my mom used to say it is?

In a course about “Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects » by McMaster University & University of California San Diego, it was stated as follows, and I quote with minor modifications:

“You might be surprised to learn that just plain being awake creates toxic products in your brain. How does the brain get rid of these poisons? Turns out that when you sleep, your brain cells shrink. 

This causes an increase in the space between your brain cells. It’s like unblocking a stream. Fluid can flow past these cells and wash the toxins out. So, sleep which can sometimes seem like such a waste of time is actually your brain’s way of keeping itself clean and healthy.”

So, let’s get right to a critical idea. Taking a test ( or doing a presentation at work or a making a speech or whatever it is you might need to have a clear mind to do) without getting enough sleep means you’re operating with a brain that got little metabolic toxins or poisons floating around in it and make it so you can’t think very clearly. 

“It’s kind of like trying to drive a car that’s got sugar in its gas tank, doesn’t work too well. In fact, getting too little sleep doesn’t just make you do worse on tests. Too little sleep over too long of a time can also be associated with all sorts of nasty conditions including headaches, depression, heart disease, diabetes, and just plain dying earlier. 

But sleep does more than just allow your brain to wash away toxins. It’s actually an important part of the memory and learning process. It seems that during sleep, your brain tidies up ideas and concepts you’re thinking about and learning. It erases the less important parts of memories and simultaneously strengthens areas that you need or want to remember. During sleep, your brain also rehearses some of the tougher parts of whatever you’re trying to learn, going over and over neural patterns to deepen and strengthen them.”

Sleep has also been shown to make a remarkable difference in your ability to figure out difficult problems and to understand what you’re trying to learn. It’s as if the complete deactivation of the conscious you in the prefrontal cortex at the forefront of your brain helps other areas of your brain start talking more easily to one another allowing them to put together the neural solution to your learning task while you’re sleeping. Of course, you must also plant the seed for your diffuse mode by first doing focused mode work (we talked about the focused and diffuse mode in a previous post). If you’re going over what you’re learning right before you take a nap or going to sleep for the evening, you have an increased chance of dreaming about it. If you go even further and set it in mind that you want to dream about the material it seems to improve your chances of dreaming about it, still further. Dreaming about what you’re studying can substantially enhance your ability to understand. It somehow consolidates your memories into easier to grasp chunks.

So, what are you waiting for? Let’s just spend a few minutes focusing on the thing you wanna learn today, make a decision that you wanna dream about it and then hop, to bed! Your brain or your subconscious mind will do the rest while you’re sleeping. Interesting, no? I don’t know about you, but I like that tip very much, more excuse to stay in bed a bit more and actually, jokes aside, I tried it and it worked.

To be continued

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