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General Medical Questions
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Question : Does sleep enhance learning and memory? Is there a price to pay for cutting down on the hours you sleep?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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October 05, 2012
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A:

A good night’s sleep does help us learn and remember. Here’s the pattern: Learn something new during the day. Reinforce what you have learned while you sleep.

The sleeping brain strengthens two kinds of memory:

  • ”Declarative memory” is memory for information — facts, dates and names.
  • “Procedural memory” is skill memory — playing a musical instrument or swinging a golf club.

There are two main kinds of sleep. About every 90 minutes, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep alternates with non-REM (NREM).

Early in the night, NREM dominates. Toward morning, REM sleep takes up larger portions of the cycle. We dream most vividly during REM sleep. The most vivid dreams of all happen at the end of the night.

In general, NREM sleep facilitates declarative memories. REM sleep reinforces procedural memories.

The sleeping brain works hardest on the most difficult learning tasks. So the more complex the task, the greater the benefit of a good night’s sleep.

Sleep may promote creativity and insight. Compared to sleep-deprived people, those who have slept well are better able to find hidden solutions to problems.

REM dreaming may be especially important for creativity. This may advance the original thinking required for insight.

If you cut down on sleep, you will probably pay a price. The best results seem to require eight or nine solid hours of sleep, including that last REM period.

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