Sleep and learning are inextricably linked. Albert Camus understood the connection: “Some people talk in their sleep. Lecturers talk while other people sleep.” But the sleep you catch up on in class is not going to get you to your best grades or test scores. Instead, how and when you hit the pillow exerts a tremendous impact on your performance the next day.
The Motherlode blog at the New York Times explored the concept of tailoring sleep patterns to desired outcomes. In essence, the author suggests the following:
Facing a trivia contest, spelling bee, or test based on memorized information?
Go to sleep early to get as much Stage 1 deep sleep as you can. Deep sleep is when the brain consolidates new information.
Facing a big sporting event, performance, or test based on practiced physical skills?
Sleep late enough to enjoy sufficient quantities of Stage 2 sleep. Stage 2 sleep is when the brain consolidates motor memory.
This advice seems oddly specific and somewhat impractical considering the grim necessities of overscheduled academic life these days. The author also overlooks other sleep stages, which bring their own benefits. On the other hand, the article does mention REM sleep.
Everyone loves REM sleep. Why wouldn’t we? REM sleep is linked to a veritable cornucopia of benefits, from greater restfulness to improved moods to dreams. Furthermore, REM sleep is when the brain consolidates procedural and spatial memory. Basically, this is where we store complex new information and skills to long-term memory. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? If you couldn’t tell, this is the kind of sleep you need if you’re taking a big test like the SAT or ACT.
Achieving optimal levels of REM sleep depends on all sorts of factors, including diet, environment, and activity level before bedtime. But the one non-negotiable path to satisfying amounts of REM sleep is the one that modern teens and adults have the most trouble with: getting enough sleep.
The longer we sleep, the more often we achieve REM sleep. The optimal amount of sleep seems to be 8-10 hours. Conversely, 6 hours or fewer—about the average American adults get each night—is linked to all manner of problems. Dr. James B. Maas connects such sleep deprivation with reduced productivity, concentration and quality of work, as well as increased moodiness, stress, accidents, illness and shortened life span.
The conclusion is simple. Instead of worrying about exactly which stage of sleep you want to target, enjoy all of them in healthy doses by getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night. Studying late into the night and waking up at the crack of dawn simply does not work. Instead, consistently sleeping long enough to soak up that beautiful REM sleep (ideally 9.25 hours a night for teens) opens up all sorts of long-term performance advantages. Just remember that sleep is not enough: you still need to study!
Stop running on empty… get enough sleep!