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Learning how to Learn: Sleep

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by | Nov 26, 2018

Sleep is extremely important for body functions, but also for learning and memory. Certain stages of sleep allow us to take all of the learning we have been cramming into our working memory (short-term) and consolidate it all, allowing us to store it to long term memory, allowing us to recall the information rather than forgetting it all! Picturing where sleep happens gives us a mental picture of the process. However, what actually happens? There are a lot of hormones and chemicals involved, I won’t insult professionals by attempting to explain the complexity! They all switch on and off, rise and fall, and this is how our body knows to drift into sleep. Once we are there, there are different stages of our sleeping cycle. Five stages, to be exact :


Stage 1

Light sleep, you can be easily woken and are still slightly alert. Your eye movements and muscle activity begin to slow down, and you can have occasional muscle twitching. This stage roughly lasts around 7 minutes.

Stage 2

Also a light stage of sleep, heart rate and breathing will begin to slow down. Your body temperature may even begin to decrease, ever so slightly. Your brain waves will also begin to slow, prior to this your brain would send an increased frequency of waves known as “sleep spindles”.

Stage 3

Stage 3 is when deep sleep begins, brought on by delta waves in the brain. At this stage there is no eye or muscle movement, and it will be slightly more difficult to wake you because your body becomes less alert to outside stimuli.

Stage 4

The delta waves in your brain increase and you fall into a deeper sleep. Breathing enters a rhythmic state. This stage is the beginning of restorative sleep: repairing muscle and tissue, boosting immune function and building energy up for the next day.

These four stages are classed together as Non-Rapid Eye Movement [NREM]sleep. Our muscle activity decreases in these stages, and it is difficult to wake someone in stage 4 sleep, however all our muscles retain their ability to function in NREM vs. REM where the muscles in charge of movement, become paralysed.

Stage 5

Rapid Eye Movement [REM]sleep. This is the Holy Grail of sleep stages! Your eye movement happens in rapid bursts (hence the name), darting back and forth, up and down. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, and breathing becomes fast, irregular and shallow. Most importantly though: our brains become active. REM is the stage of sleep most important in learning and memory, it is when we process the information from the day before. Consolidating all the information so it can be moved to our long-term memory. REM sleep roughly takes about 90 minutes to reach and can last up to an hour.

During sleep, you don’t just run through stages 1-5 and done. It is a lot more complex! We do think sleep occurs sequentially (from stage 1 – 5), but you will cycle through NREM and REM a number of times: the average adult is thought to cycle through 5-6 times a night. In the beginnings of sleep, we spend the majority of our time in NREM sleep. Towards the end, will spend more time in REM sleep followed (again) by lighter stages of sleep. There is evidence to suggest it is not just “where we are” in our sleep that this applies to, but the time of night. The majority of NREM is thought to occur early evening (11pm-3am) and the majority of REM from 3am-7am. Knowing that REM mostly occurs 3am-7am, my previous blog post statement stands: why are people rising at 3am-5am with little sleep?! Cutting short REM seems counter productive as this is when all that learning you’ve crammed in the day before is consolidated and moved to long-term memory: so you will be able to recall it for that important test/interview/talk.


So, how much sleep should I be getting?


The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) suggest that the average amount of sleep required for an adult (18-60yrs) is 7+ hours. The National Sleep Foundation also released the results of a research paper, which also advise that adults achieve 7-9 hours of sleep each evening Interestingly, 14-17 year olds should aim for 8-10 hours, which explains why I was always tired and grumpy as a teenager. Not quite sure what my excuse is now… The general consensus is that we, as adults, need approximately 7-9 hours of sleep each night. When you get down to around 4 hours of sleep, brain function starts to be affected. Your reflexes will become sluggish, reaction times slow: it has been suggested that driving on this amount of sleep or less is as dangerous as drinking and driving. Aside from the number of hours you get in your kip, sleep benefits are also dependent on quality of sleep: reaching sufficient REM.


Having Trouble Sleeping?

There are many ways you can try to improve your sleep quality and how much sleep you can achieve each night:

  • Keep to a schedule. Have a time that you know you go to bed at and, as important, have a time that you get up at. Try and stick to these times as much as possible, even on the weekends. Something I found very interesting was that you should stick to this schedule regardless if you slept badly. Even if you have an awful sleep the night before, you should aim to get up at the same time in the morning, your body will help consolidate the lost sleep the next night. Click to read more on this.


  • Have a pre-bed routine. An hour before bed, have a routine that is sleep inducing. Read a book, have a bath, drink a hot cup of milk. I have found it really helpful to try some light stretching before bed, or a yoga sequence. You could even try some meditation.


  • Headspace. This gets its own bullet point because this app has really helped me. I have a very busy mind and often find it hard to get to sleep because when my head hits the pillow, I have no distractions and my brain runs riot with worries, fears, to do lists etc. Headspace is a guided meditation app which helps me to filter out the noise and truly relax into sleep. A fantastic edition is they now have “sleepcasts” where it feels like I am being read a story, as well as practicing mindfullness. Highly recommend.


  • Avoid things like caffeine, alcohol and nicotine right before bed. I actually try to avoid too much caffeine after 5pm, otherwise I’m wired for the rest of the night! Be careful that your green tea is caffeine free, I had three cups of tea prior to bed once and was buzzing through til 3am.


  • Your sleep environment is extremely important: you should have a cool, dark environment for sleeping. Black out blinds/curtains to filter out light, earplugs or white noise appliances to filter out background noise. You can pick up ear plugs on amazing for around $3 and if it is not an option to buy/have black out curtains, a sleep mask will work the same!


  • Don’t exercise right before bed, aim to exercise earlier in the day


  • If you love naps, because who doesn’t, aim to have these earlier in the day


  • I am terrible for this: don’t be a clock watcher. If you can’t sleep, don’t lie staring at the clock or counting how many hours of sleep you will get if you fall asleep now … or now … how many hours now? If you really can’t get to sleep, don’t stress yourself and further prevent sleep. Get up, move to a dimly lit room and do something that relaxes you such as reading a book or listening to an audio book/podcast.


  • Blue light, emitted by laptops and phone screens etc will impair sleep. You can choose to avoid these devices up to two hours before your planned bed time, or if that is not an option make use of things like blue light blocking glasses (yes these are a real thing!), download an app to your phone that reduces blue light; this can also be done on your computer or laptop


  • Try not to eat very late in the evening, if this is unavoidable then aim for a lite meal. Sorry, pepperoni pizza doesn’t count as lite!

All of these are just suggestions, please don’t worry if you don’t find any of them helpful and try to figure out your own routine/what works best for you. Also, there will be evenings you get in late, nights you don’t sleep and parties you’ll stumble home (safely) from. I am in no way saying you should aim for perfect amounts and quality of sleep each and every night, it is just not realistic to expect! Aim to have the recommended amount of sleep as many nights as you can, I assure you that you’ll feel better for it and I am certain that studying for tests will become easier if you aim for a good amount and quality of sleep!

NOTE: If you are concerned that there is another reason you are not sleeping: maybe you are always stressed and finding it hard to switch off, you just can’t sleep/stay asleep (insomnia) or you are concerned about your breathing when you sleep, please consider going to your GP and discussing your sleep as you could be suffering from a sleep disorder which is a lot more serious than a few sleepless evenings due to a big exam. 


Cited from Psychology Today , National Sleep Foundation , Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Sleep Foundation: How Much Sleep?  & Harvard: Healthy Sleep 

Photo 1: Google Result: Sleep Stages. AP Psychology