Our next blog series comes from a different kind of book that challenges us in a different kind of way. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD, helps us to understand the science behind sleep and recovery and encourages us to take our sleep just as serious as we take our waking hours. Taking on the challenge of improving our sleep quality and quantity can have a tremendous impact in our life satisfaction, our performance, and in our relationships. The next blog of this series will discuss the benefits we gain from getting a consistent 8 hours of sleep, specifically related to our brain and learning.
Over the last two weeks, we have learned about how we sleep, what happens to our brain during sleep within our circadian rhythm and the sleep cycle. Now, we will learn about how the brain benefits during sleep. Memory is enhanced in multiple ways during sleep. “Sleep before learning refreshes our ability to initially make new memories.” More specifically, sleep helps us to shift our memories from temporary storage to long-term memory storage. In doing so, we then create space to learn and make new memories in our short-term memory system. “The second benefit of sleep for memory comes after learning, one that effectively clicks the “save” button on those newly created files. In doing so, sleep protects newly acquired information, affording immunity against forgetting: an operation called consolidation.” Researchers have studied memory retention and report a benefit of 20-40% greater memory retention for participants who slept 8 hours after learning new information than those who stayed awake. This number is staggering and has critical implications for high school, college, and adult learners.
Walker also was one of the first researchers to apply this concept to motor skill learning and retention. In his early research on motor learning, he had participants learn a number sequence on a keyboard and perform the sequence as quickly and accurately as possible. He then tested an experimental group of the participants 12 hours later to see if any additional learning had taken place and compared those results with a control group that had not slept. “Those who were tested after the very same time delay of twelve hours, but that spanned a night of sleep, showed a striking 20 percent jump in performance speed and a near 35 percent improvement in accuracy. In other words, your brain will continue to improve skill memories in the absence of any further practice.” The brain process at work here is a shift from working memory to the brain circuits that operate below the level of consciousness, creating instinctual habits of newly learned motor skills. This process is invaluable to athletes and performers as everyone at the elite level is looking for an additional performance edge. Further, athletes who sleep more will be able to perform longer before reaching physical exhaustion, have greater cardiovascular, respiratory, and metabolic capabilities, have reduced lactic acid build-up, greater blood oxygen saturation, and lower levels of blood carbon dioxide, and even have a greater ability to cool the body during exertion through sweating. Athletes who sleep an average of 8-9 hours consistently are also at a significant lower risk of experiencing an athletic injury (18-35% in comparison to 75% for those who sleep just 6 hours per night). One example of a professional athlete and the impact sleep has had on performance is that of Andre Iguodala, formerly of the Golden State Warriors NBA Finals team. Iguodala found that if he sleeps more than 8 hours per night, he has a 12% increase in minutes played, 29% increase in points/minute, a 2% increase in 3-point percentage, a 9% increase in free-throw percentage, a 37% decrease in turnovers, and a 45% decrease in fouls committed. With this information, it is critical for athletes to prioritize sleep to in turn improve performance!
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