If you make a habit of pulling all-nighters to cram for that big exam, you might want to reconsider. It seems catching ZZZs may be the trick to earning A’s. A new study conducted by British and American professors finds that sleep may be just as important as studying when it comes to learning new things. By entering a deep sleep, your brain is better able to establish connections between new facts and previous knowledge.
Researchers recruited 60 subjects with normal sleep patterns and broke them into two equal groups. In the morning, the first group learned a batch of 30 fake words, each sounding similar to real words. They then returned later in the evening to take a test on how well they learned the words. Meanwhile, the second group studied the same phony words at nighttime. This group did not complete their vocabulary test until the following morning after a full night’s sleep.
Once the tests were scored, researchers found that the subjects who slept after learning the new words performed much better than those who were awake throughout the day. Although they had less wakeful time to consciously think of these words, it seems that sleeping proved more beneficial in cementing new knowledge. “Sleep appears to consolidate new memories by strengthening and integrating them with memories,” one study author stated.
Because the sleeping subjects spent the night in the laboratory where their brain activity was measured, scientists were able to make more specific deductions about sleep’s power. Overall, the deeper the sleep of the subject (as indicated by their brainwaves), the better they learned the words. In particular, researchers noted that a sleeper’s amount of sleep spindles was most predictive of their success on the vocabulary test.
Though additional research will be necessary in order to draw firm conclusions, this initial study seems to suggest that sleep is crucial to the process of forming new memories. Considering that the study utilized nonsense words that sounded similar to real worlds (for example, “cathedruke” reminded many of “cathedral”), the research specifically indicates sleep’s ability to aid in learning by accessing prior knowledge.
So if you stay up all night before an important test, you may be doing yourself a disservice. For all those that dread early morning classes, this research may spur schools to think about later start times. Regardless of whether you’re in school or not though, this study shows the importance of a good night’s sleep for anyone who hopes to retain the new knowledge.