How Sleep Can Help You Learn: A HealthCentral Explainer

ATsai Editor
  • A new study from Northwestern University suggests that we can learn and strengthen our memory even while we sleeping.


    How was the study done?

    The researchers worked with study participants  who learned how to play two musical tunes with well-timed key presses. Then they took a nap for 90 minutes, while the researchers played one of the tunes that they had practiced. This was done when, based on readings of brain activity, the participants were in a slow-wave sleep phase, which has been linked to enriching memories.


    After the nap, participants made fewer errors when playing the song they heard during their naps, compared to the song that wasn’t played.  In addition, researchers found that electrophysiological signals during sleep correlated with how much memory improved.

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    Researchers say the study shows that memory only strengthens skills that have already been learned, rather than allowing you to learn something completely new. It’s a matter of enhancing an existing memory and re-activating recently learned information.


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    Is there other evidence to show that we can learn while we sleep?

    Previous studies have touched on the importance of sleep in strengthening memory. A study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in September 2011, looked at the possibility that people may actually be learning while they sleep.  


    In their study of 250 people, researchers  found that there’s processing going on in the brain during sleep that we are not aware of, and that it may boost memory during waking hours. The study also found that people get vastly different effects from this type of “sleep memory.” Some memories improve greatly while others do not. The researchers  also went on to say that something as simple as getting more sleep could improve performance in the classroom.


    How much sleep do teens need to do well in school?

    If teens can improve their academic performance by getting more sleep, it raises the question of how much more sleep is enough?  A study released in February suggested that 16 to 18 –year-olds do better in school after having seven hours of sleep, rather than the recommended nine hours.


    The study, published in The Eastern Economics Journal, looked at data from 1,724 primary and secondary students across the country, and found that the amount of sleep students had made an impact on their standardized test scores. They found that 10 year-olds perform best when getting nine to nine and a half hours each night, 12-year-olds do so with eight to eight and a half, and 16-year-olds with seven hours.  This suggests that the no set amount of sleep is best, but rather that it’s important for students to get the right amount of sleep for their age.


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    Why does intense learning increase our need for sleep?

    Just as we need to sleep to help us learn, learning causes our bodies to need sleep. A study published in the journal Science in June 2011 studied fruit flies divided into three groups. All groups spent the first days of their lives alone in a small tube too small for flying. Then, two groups were released for 12 hours in a lighted chamber so they could fly together. Those that were allowed to fly together grew more new synapses than those that did not have that social experience.


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    Also, one group after having the flying experience was put back in the separate tubes to sleep for at least a day. Their synapses returned to normal size after sleep. The other group that had the social experience was deprived of sleep, and they continued to have synapses that were larger and denser.

    The researchers concluded that sleep is important to prune back the new synapses, creating space for synapses to grow again. And that’s what allows your brain to learn again the next day.



    Northwestern University. (2012, June 25). "Research Shows That Stimulation During Sleep Can Enhance Skill Learning." Medical News Today. Retrieved from


    Dian Land. (2011, June 24). "Enriched Learning Drives Need For Sleep, Even In Flies." Medical News Today. Retrieved from


    Christian Nordqvist. (2012, February 20). "Teenagers Should Sleep Seven Hours For Best Test Results." Medical News Today. Retrieved from


    Michigan State University. (2011, September 29). "Learning While You Sleep." Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Published On: July 10, 2012