Home > Educational Neuroscience > The Brain Needs Sleep

The Brain Needs Sleep

The beginning of school is an exciting and busy time for teachers and students. In this time of adjustment and preparation, both teachers and students find themselves staying up later and getting up earlier than they would like. It can become too easy to neglect one of the most important natural processes for  remembering new information: Sleep.  While the body  sleeps,  the brain is encoding of information into  long-term memory. For teachers, the beginning of the year requires remembering many new bits of information, such as student names, new policies that the state or district have mandated, which students have special needs, and so on. For students, the curriculum alone is full of information that  they should store into long-term memory, and that’s not including  any new classroom procedures and expectations that are being introduced.

A Sleeping Brain is a Working Brain

As we sleep, the brain reviews the events and tasks of the day, deciding which should be stored and which should be forgotten. During the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage, the brain is not preoccupied with external stimuli because the brain blocks external sensory input. What we think and talk about while we are awake very likely influences the nature and shape of the memory consolidation that occurs during sleep. Adequate sleep is vital to the memory storage process, especially for young learners.

Sleep Improves Learning

In my latest edition of How the Brain Learns, I address the importance of sleep in learning, citing a number of interesting research experiments. For instance, Wilhelm and his colleagues (2011) did a series of experiments to determine if sleep significantly benefited the consolidation of memory. One group of participants was told they would be  taking a test in 10 hours on what they were learning,  while a control group was given a surprise test. The  researchers found that sleep improved retention in the first group. Further comparisons using Electroencephalography (EEG) (electrodes on the scalp to measure brain waves) showed that the participants in the first group spent more time in deep REM sleep and had more bursts of electrical activity associated with memory storage than the  group that was not expecting the test. Wilhelm  concluded that merely knowing that memory would be needed for a future task benefited the consolidation of memory.

So as the school year gets moving, make getting a good night’s sleep a high priority. Stress the importance of sleep to your students. Keep in mind that the normal sleep time of eight to nine hours allows for up to five cycles of REM sleep to occur.  This  research strongly suggests that a good night’s sleep can significantly improve classroom performance for students and teachers, and daytime activities should be prioritized to allow for eight to nine hours of undisturbed nighttime sleep.
Wilhelm, Ines, Susanne Diekelmann, Ina Molzow, Amr Ayoub, Matthias Mölle, and Jan Born. (2011) “Sleep Selectively Enhances Memory Expected to Be of Future Relevance.” The Journal of Neuroscience, 31,  1563-569.

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