Sleep, Learning, and Memory

At a Glance

  • Research suggests that sleep plays an important role in memory, both before and after learning a new task.
  • Lack of adequate sleep affects mood, motivation, judgment, and our perception of events.
  • Although there are some open questions about the specific role of sleep in forming and storing memories, the general consensus is that consolidated sleep throughout a whole night is optimal for learning and memory.

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The Learning Process and Sleep

Sleep, learning, and memory are complex phenomena that are not entirely understood. However, animal and human studies suggest that the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Second, sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information.

Although the exact mechanisms are not known, learning and memory are often described in terms of three functions. Acquisition refers to the introduction of new information into the brain. Consolidation represents the processes by which a memory becomes stable. Recall refers to the ability to access the information (whether consciously or unconsciously) after it has been stored.

Each of these steps is necessary for proper memory function. Acquisition and recall occur only during wakefulness, but research suggests that memory consolidation takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories. Although there is no consensus about how sleep makes this process possible, many researchers think that specific characteristics of brainwaves during different stages of sleep are associated with the formation of particular types of memory.

Dr. Stickgold

Sleep, Learning, and Memory (1:52)

Dr. Robert Stickgold discusses how sleep plays a role in memory, both before and after a new learning situation.

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Sleep researchers study the role of sleep in learning and memory formation in two ways. The first approach looks at the different stages of sleep (and changes in their duration) in response to learning a variety of new tasks. The second approach examines how sleep deprivation affects learning. Sleep deprivation can be total (no sleep allowed), partial (either early or late sleep is deprived), or selective (specific stages of sleep are deprived).

Sleep Stages and Types of Memory

Different types of memories are formed in new learning situations. Scientists are exploring whether there is a relationship between the consolidation of different types of memories and the various stages of sleep.

The earliest sleep and memory research focused on declarative memory, which is the knowledge of fact-based information, or "what" we know (for example, the capital of France, or what you had for dinner last night). In one research study, individuals engaged in an intensive language course were observed to have an increase in rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM sleep. This is a stage of sleep in which dreaming occurs most frequently. Scientists hypothesized that REM sleep played an essential role in the acquisition of learned material. Further studies have suggested that REM sleep seems to be involved in declarative memory processes if the information is complex and emotionally charged, but probably not if the information is simple and emotionally neutral.

Researchers now hypothesize that slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is deep, restorative sleep, also plays a significant role in declarative memory by processing and consolidating newly acquired information. Studies of the connection between sleep and declarative memory have had mixed results, and this is an area of continued research.

Research has also focused on sleep and its role in procedural memory—the remembering "how" to do something (for example, riding a bicycle or playing the piano). REM sleep seems to plays a critical role in the consolidation of procedural memory. Other aspects of sleep also play a role: motor learning seems to depend on the amount of lighter stages of sleep, while certain types of visual learning seem to depend on the amount and timing of both deep, slow-wave sleep (SWS) and REM sleep.

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Learning and Performance

Another area that researchers study is the impact that a lack of adequate sleep has on learning and memory. When we are sleep deprived, our focus, attention, and vigilance drift, making it more difficult to receive information. Without adequate sleep and rest, over-worked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly, and we lose our ability to access previously learned information.

In addition, our interpretation of events may be affected. We lose our ability to make sound decisions because we can no longer accurately assess the situation, plan accordingly, and choose the correct behavior. Judgment becomes impaired.

Being chronically tired to the point of fatigue or exhaustion means that we are less likely to perform well. Neurons do not fire optimally, muscles are not rested, and the body’s organ systems are not synchronized. Lapses in focus from sleep deprivation can even result in accidents or injury.

For more information about how sleep deprivation affects performance, see Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety.

Low-quality sleep and sleep deprivation also negatively impact mood, which has consequences for learning. Alterations in mood affect our ability to acquire new information and subsequently to remember that information. Although chronic sleep deprivation affects different individuals in a variety of ways (and the effects are not entirely known), it is clear that a good night’s rest has a strong impact on learning and memory.

Open Questions

Although current research suggests that sleep is essential for proper memory function, there are unanswered questions, as in any area of active scientific inquiry. For example, certain medications will significantly, if not entirely, suppress REM sleep. However, patients taking these medications do not report any memory impairment. Similarly, injuries or disease causing lesions to the brainstem (and subsequently eliminating a person’s REM sleep) have not resulted in any obvious loss of the ability to form new memories. Exploration and debate continue.

Not all researchers are convinced that sleep plays as prominent a role in memory consolidation as others believe. In experiments in which animals completed a course through a complicated maze, the animals' amount of REM sleep increased after performing the task. Some researchers believe that the increase in REM sleep reflects an increased demand on the brain processes that are involved in learning a new task. Other researchers, however, have suggested that any changes in the amount of REM sleep are due to the stress of the task itself, rather than a functional relationship to learning.

Researchers are likewise split with regard to the impact of sleep deprivation on learning and memory. For example, rats often perform much worse on learning tasks after being selectively deprived of REM sleep. This suggests that REM sleep is necessary for the animals’ ability to consolidate the memory of how to perform the task. Some scientists have argued that the observed differences in learning are not actually due to the lack of REM sleep, but may be due to the animals not being as well rested because they were deprived a portion of their sleep.

Summary

In the view of many researchers, evidence suggests that various sleep stages are involved in the consolidation of different types of memories and that being sleep deprived reduces one’s ability to learn. Although open questions (and debate) remain, the overall evidence suggests that adequate sleep each day is very important for learning and memory.

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This content was last reviewed on December 18, 2007

How Do We Know This?

Getting adequate sleep the first night after learning a new skill is important for improving memory and performance. more