Sleep & learning

“To sleep: perchance to dream” (Hamlet) Current research demonstrates the importance of sleeping and dreaming for memory, learning, and health. Scientists have known that lack of sleep affects memory and learning. But how little can a person sleep before suffering effect of sleep deprivation? Age factors into the equation and has significant implications for education.

Sleep deprivation accounts for numerous accidents resulting in injury or death. A recent segment on Sixty Minutes explored the effects of lack of sleep on mental and physical tasks. Such tragedies include the Valdez oil spill and the New York ferry accident. Drivers who lose focus at the wheel due to drowsiness or fatigue cause many traffic accidents annually.

Researchers at UC Berkeley tested college students who remained awake for twenty-four hours. These subjects performed 40% worse in memorizing a list of words than those with a full night’s sleep. Conversely, the researchers found that restful sleep actually enhances learning. One group learned a keyboarding pattern in the morning and then returned after twelve hours for a re-test. A second group learned the same pattern at a different time–late in the afternoon and returned for a re-test the next morning after a full night’s sleep. The latter group performed 20%-30% better than the first group. The lesson from this study appears to be that staying awake to learn something is not as good a strategy as “sleeping on it.”

Another study performed at the U. Penn showed how little sleep constitutes sleep deprivation. “A single night at four hours or five hours or even six, can in most people, begin to show affects in attention and memory and the (thinking) A second night it gets worse. A third night worse. Each day adds an additional burden or deficit to cognitive ability.” Furthermore, the sleep-deprived individuals appear to lose judgment about their performance, not realizing the slowing thought process.

Most adults need a minimum of seven and a half to eight hours sleep. Teens, adolescents, and children require more: eight to ten hours. Chronic sleep deprivation affects more than memory; it can have a detrimental effect on health. In fact, restful sleep includes a number of REM (rapid eye movement) cycles that indicate dreaming. Young healthy children usually have about 100 minutes of REM, while a middle-aged adult may have only 20 minutes. Lack of REM sleep may result in lack of attention as well as an inability to metabolize sugar effectively.

A typical teenager whose school day begins with a 7:30 class can achieve only eight hours of sleep if he goes to sleep at 11:00 pm and awakes at 7:00. Thus, he is may be chronically sleep deprived. Add to this schedule some rigorous sport practice and several hours of homework, and the recipe for poor health and poor academic performance appears. Students need help in organizing their schedules to optimize their capacity for learning and healthy living.

One Response to “Sleep & learning”

  1. Nahro

    World Sleep Day, which falls on March 16th of every year reminds us the need to have eunogh sleep to maintain a strong mind and overall health and depriving of sleep bring forth many disorders like: apnea, etc..Dr. Prem Raj Pushpakaran.


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