Why sleep helps you learn new skills faster

Better sleep can actually help you learn faster. Here’s how to improve your sleep and make learning new skills easier at the same time

There are plenty of reasons to catch more Zs. According to a meta-analysis of studies published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Sleep Research, for instance, a dearth of quality slumber negatively impacts performance and mood, while other studies suggest insufficient sleep makes you snack more.

But there’s one benefit to sleeping more (or better) that’s mentioned less frequently: it’ll help you retain information and hardwire in new skills. So if you’re trying to learn a new skill, an extra hour in bed might beat one at the books or on the pitch – by making sure the information goes in. 

Sleep to remember

It’s long been thought that sleep plays an active role in consolidating memories by providing an interference-free environment for your brain to encode them, so that it doesn’t confuse the activity in your neural circuitry with what’s happening in the real world.

If you’ve ever dreamed about a new skill that you’re trying to perfect, the theory goes, this is why – your brain’s working on it as you slumber.

According to a review of various scientific studies, it’s likely that each stage of sleep plays a role in forming memories – with memories being consolidated in ‘short-wave’ sleep (when you’ve just nodded off) and then stabilised in REM sleep (the deeper sleep that occurs when you’ve been under for an hour or so).

This all lets your brain sort new experiences into ‘conceptual frameworks,’ making sense of them and making you better at a skill. Ever hit a plateau in a new skill and then come back better the next day, or dreamed about something you’re practicing? The rest might have helped – but your brain’s probably been working on it overnight. 

Practice little and often 

So how do you make the most of your overnight learning? Crucially, space your studies out: last-minute cramming isn’t as effective as slow, study progress. Another 2013 study showed that pianists who learned a new melody were better able to perform it with speed and accuracy after a night’s shut-eye.

Crucially, learning two similar melodies diminished the effect, while in other studies doubling practice time had no effect on sleep dependent motor skill acquisition – suggesting that the best strategy is to practice little and often, rather than packing everything into one mammoth session. 

Personalise your sleep strategy

This also means you might be able to swap a longer practice session for an extra half hour in bed – a strategy that sleep consultant Dr James Maas used with Olympian Sarah Hughes to grab her a gold in figure skating.

Maas suggests determining a ‘personal sleep quotient’ – the amount of shuteye that allows you to feel energised throughout the day without a significant mid-afternoon slump – then setting consistent bed and wake-up times to keep your circadian clock ticking correctly. 

Train your circadian rhythm

Once you’ve done your training and you’re ready to shut it down for the evening, resist the urge to have a post-practice drink – booze can compromise the early cycles of short-wave sleep that science now suggests is key for memory consolidation.

You should also avoid caffeine in the hours before bed – and, crucially, avoid the temptation to have a weekend lie-in, which can further disrupt your carefully curated circadian rhythm – hitting snooze for an hour on Saturday is like giving yourself (mild) jetlag every week. 

Can you learn while sleeping?

Finally, can you learn a new skill without being awake at all? Maybe. A smattering of studies have tried to answer this question, but a recent one published in Current Biology shows promise: researchers played vocabulary from a made-up language to volunteers while they snoozed, and the participants were able to make associations with the new words when they woke up.

They didn’t actually learn the words – they were simply able to answer vague questions about their meaning better than a control group – but the study suggests that sleep-learning might prime the brain for more dedicated daytime learning or practice. That said, this has only worked for language so far, so don’t expect to master physics by nodding off to Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

The take-home message is clear: if you’re trying to improve at a new skill then good quality sleep should be as much of a priority as time spent studying and practicing.

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