To Learn, Sleep More

by F.


Recently, I’ve been trying this out—with excellent results. While I’ve always been an early riser (5:30 AM previously), I’ve been sleeping longer aided, when I can’t sleep, by doxylamine, which doesn’t seem to have any side effects. Not yet at least.

Many sleep researchers think that sleep serves to re-activate synapses that were strengthened during the day, and thus reinforces their strength rather than diminishing it. Scientific American summarizes some recent findings:

Sleep aids memory. Whether tested in animals or humans, studies have shown that sense memories–such as learning a certain sequence of dance steps–take root more solidly when paired with adequate rest. Now new research shows that so-called declarative memories–such as a sequence of facts–also benefit from slumber, especially when subjects are challenged with subsequent, competing information.

However, as summarized in The Economist, a different hypothesis has been propounded by Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin:

Many theories have been proposed to explain why the pressure to sleep builds up until it becomes irresistible. The latest, presented at the recent annual meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, in Florence, Italy, starts from the obvious proposition that the longer you stay awake, the more you learn. Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin proposes that this extra learning makes the brain more and more expensive to maintain. Sleep prunes back the grey matter so that, come the morning, the brain is once again economical to run. If this pruning cannot take place, the organ becomes less and less efficient, and dire consequences result.

My anecdotal experience suggests the former hypothesis is correct. And my cat agrees.