Study Shows That the Key to Cognitive Learning is to Sleep More

If you feel like you struggle at work to remember important information, or that you don’t comprehend new ideas quite as fast as you’d like, there’s a newly proven scientific study that suggests you may not be getting enough sleep. Researchers at the University of York have recently conducted a study showing that if you sleep better, you may well learn better. It has to do with the ways that memory works, and how sleep interacts with those memories.

It’s a complicated theory, but basically boils down to this: We are able to use our memory in the most flexible and adaptable manner possible when we use sleep to strengthen both new and old versions of the same memory. So how exactly does this work? We did a deep dive into how sleeping better leads to a better memory.

How Your Brain Functions Like a Computer

Our memories work sort of like a hard drive, in that we keep both new and old data together. When we remember something, it is updated with new information present at the time of recalling it, but also remembers the original version. The brain doesn’t ‘overwrite’ the old version of the memory, but instead generates and stores multiple (new and old) versions of the same experience to be recalled later. That means that our learning is a composite of new and old memories, constantly revising as we go along. So where does sleep come in?

Sleep is where our brain sorts out memories, taking new memories and ideas from one part of the brain that focuses on initial experiences, to another part where our long term data is stored. It’s this process that allows us a vital and adaptive learning ability.

“Previous studies have shown sleep’s importance for memory,” says lead researcher Dr. Scott Cairney. “Our research takes this a step further by demonstrating that sleep strengthens both old and new versions of an experience, helping us to use our memories adaptively.”

Study Leads to Sleep Revelations

The study revolved around showing subjects the location of different words on a computer screen, then having half the subjects sleep for ninety minutes. After that time, both sets of subjects were shown the words in the middle of the screen and were asked to place them where they were originally located. Across the board, the subjects allowed to sleep performed much better than the ones who weren’t.

“For the sleep group, we found that sleep strengthened both their memory of the original location as well as the new location,” said researcher Professor Gareth Gaskell. “In this way, we were able to demonstrate that sleep benefits all the multiple representations of the same experience in our brain.”

So while it could feel like a good idea to use this extra time problem solving at work, it actually could be more beneficial to take that time and sleep on the solution. You may not feel like it, but to sleep better is to plan for success. There’s a reason that many geniuses kept a journaling notebook by their bedside. And while we aren’t saying that you’ll be the next Picasso or Jeff Bezos if you sleep a little more, it’s always a smart idea to leave yourself in the best position for decisive action. Now we know the best way to get there, a good night of sleep and a highly adaptive and flexible memory.