Sleep may be thought of as down time for the body, but as we rest, the brain is still up and running. No, you can’t learn a foreign language while you snooze. But sleep does play a pivotal role in learning and development. The brain that went to sleep last night isn’t exactly the same as the one that woke up this morning. While scientists still aren’t sure why we sleep, they have conducted extensive research on the impact of sleep on our waking lives. Here are seven areas where the science backs up the common-sense idea that a good night’s rest is not just good for you. It’s essential.
Sleep helps you learn.
While we sleep, the brain isn’t just resting. It’s busy rearranging and connecting its neuron networks in different ways. This helps you make associations, recognize patterns, and recall information. That old adage about getting a good night’s rest before a big test isn’t just about feeling alert while you’re bubbling in the answers. People recall information better after they sleep, even if it’s just a daytime nap. For instance, one study of auditory memory found that after people trained themselves on a pitch memory task, they performed better after they slept compared to before they slept.
Scientists suggest that as we sleep, memories are being consolidated and transferred to other parts of the brain. This could be one reason we dream. Lab rats, for example, have been found to run mazes in their dreams, just as they do during the day.
Memory improvements after sleep may be even more dramatic in childrenthan in adults. Maybe that’s why kids need so much sleep!
Sleep helps you remember.
While you may not be conscious of it, you can hear and smell during your sleep. When you hear or smell something as you learn, and then are exposed to it again as you sleep, it improves recall once you awaken. In a 2007 study, volunteers learned the locations of picture cards in a game similar to “concentration.” While they learned, they smelled the scent of a rose. Those who were exposed to the odor again while they slept that night remembered 97 percent of the locations, compared to only 86 percent for the people who didn’t stop to smell the roses as they slept.