Sleep, Learning and Memory: How Are They Connected?

Dr. Craig Hudson, MD | November 20, 2017


Sleep has a profound impact on a person’ cognitive functions including the strength of the memory.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School have determined that sleep is vital to maintaining the brain function related to memory and learning new information. There are a few key steps in successful learning that an inadequate sleep schedule can disrupt, including focus, memory recall and memory consolidation.

How Is a Memory Made?

Generally speaking, a memory forms in three stages. First, the brain is introduced to new information. Next, the memory is consolidated where the recently acquired information becomes stabilized in the mind. Finally, there is recall, which as you might have guessed, is the brain’s ability to revisit or return to a memory to access information.

Learning Relies on Sleep Quality

After a night of insomnia, you may notice it is more difficult for you to absorb and retain information. Your ability to focus is reduced and you may struggle with remembering information you learned in the past. These symptoms occur because neuron function decreases without adequate sleep. As a result, the brain struggles to retain and recall information.

Poor sleep can also impact decision-makings skills, impair planning skills and decrease the ability to evaluate a given circumstance with accuracy.

Linking Memory Types and Sleep Levels

Sleep appears to influence the formation of both declarative and procedural memories. Declarative memories consist of knowledge that is based on facts or information. Researchers believe REM sleep is integral to learning new information that is complex or has an emotional element. Meanwhile, slow-wave sleep is believed to aid in consolidation of these types of memories.

Procedural memories consist of experiences that are more tactile, like learning how to drive a car or ride a bike. Slow-wave sleep and REM sleep are both important for stabilizing procedural memories.

What Is the Takeaway?

The relationship between sleep, memory and learning is still a debated topic in the scientific community. Some researchers are skeptical of such a strong correlation. The influence of REM sleep in particular has been questioned.

Animal trials conducted on mice determined that the mice experienced an increase in REM sleep after they learned how to complete a complicated task. Another trial conducted on rats determined that these animals struggled to learn new tasks if their REM sleep was limited. Many researchers believe the results of such trials reveal that there is indeed a link between sleep and learning. However, other researchers credit the shifts in REM sleep duration to triggers like stress.

What we know for certain is a correlation between sleep and memory formation, as well as the brain’s aptitude for learning, does exist. Sleep quality and quantity should always be maintained at optimal levels to preserve cognitive functions and emotional well-being.

For more tips on sleeping well, check out the other posts on our blog.