A recent post on NYTimes.com by Benedict Carey describes 3 distinct phases of sleep that impact cognitive performance. Everyone understands that being well rested helps you focus. It is less obvious that sleeping actually helps you lean and process information. But how and when during sleep does this unconscious learning take place?
Deep Sleep – This “knocked out cold” sleep at the beginning of the sleep cycle is when our brains consolidate facts, figures and language.
Stage 2 Sleep – During the second half of sleep our brains consolidate motor memory. This helps with physical skills that are important to playing sports or mastering musical instruments.
REM Sleep – This part of sleep where you actively dream helps with memory and comprehension. It is critical in deciphering patterns and solving complex problems. It is useful for memory in general and for skills that require problem solving like math and science.
Naps help too as they typically contain all phases of sleep.
There was a great article recently in the New York Times by Bendict Carey on study habits. As you might have imagined, the way your parents and teachers tell you to study is based on out-dated research and new techniques have been proven to help improve learning. Some of the key tips from recent research are to:
1. Vary the location you study. The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.
This is the same idea as context-dependent t learning. This is one of the key reasons why chewing Think Gum® works. Chew it to make a strong association with the material. But unlike a tree in the backyard, you can take Think Gum® with you into your exam.
2. Vary the type of material studied in a single sitting — alternating, for example, among vocabulary, reading and speaking in a new language — seems to leave a deeper impression on the brain than does concentrating on just one skill at a time. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work.
3. Don’t Cram. When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.