FLASH: Sleep impacts your ability to learn and your creative capacity. Deep sleep is also crucial for brain detoxification, and can have a significant impact on your risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
In the video below, Rhonda Patrick, PhD., a biomedical scientist, interviews professor Matthew Walker, PhD., founder and director of the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science and author of “Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams.”
In this episode, Walker discusses how sleep impacts your ability to learn and your creative capacity, and the importance of deep sleep for brain detoxification, which can influence your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The interview starts out with a discussion about how sleep patterns change during infancy, and the implications thereof.
Right around 12 months of age, when the infant is starting to learn to crawl, stand and walk, there’s a tremendous bump in stage 2 sleep, which is a light, non-REM type of sleep during which the brain is very active editing and making decisions about what information to retain and which to discard. In this case, the learning has to do with motor skills development.
Language development also occurs during this phase of life, and sleep plays an important role here too. In fact, sleep plays a crucial role any time you are learning something new, be it language or mathematics, for example, regardless of one’s age.
How Sleep Impacts Learning Processes
What’s more, sleep allows your brain to consolidate many different abstract pieces of information, sort of collating them into cohesive patterns that allow you to make sense of the world around you, and your experiences of it. In other words, sleep is crucial for abstract learning for connecting the proverbial dots opposed to simply learning individual facts.
While this is particularly relevant during early development, this is something that you continue to do throughout life, and why sleep deprivation can have such a dramatic impact on your mental well-being, triggering confusion and negative emotional states.
According to Dr. Walker, sleep affects your learning and memory processes both before and after learning, and cheating yourself of sleep on either end will impact your ability to learn.
•1st, sleep is important before learning, as it helps prepare your brain to soak up new information. Dr. Walker’s research shows that sleep-deprived students have a 40 percent reduction in their ability to retain new information, compared to those who got a full 8 hours of sleep.
Dr. Walker theorizes that your hippocampus could potentially have a time-limited capacity to store new information. When you remain awake for more than 16 hours, your hippocampus effectively runs out of storage space and cannot receive further input.
To continue learning, you need to sleep, during which the information stored in your hippocampus is transferred into long-term storage in other parts of your brain, effectively clearing out your short-term hippocampal storage.
•2nd, you need sleep after learning, to properly save and hold on to those new individual facts, and integrate the new information with what you already know.
Dr. Walker discusses fascinating research demonstrating that, during sleep, your brain quite literally replays what it has learned, but at 10 to 20X the speed of normal waking consciousness, and this is thought to be part of memory consolidation, as it increases synaptic strength.
This gathering and storing of new information occurs primarily during non-REM sleep. Then, during REM sleep ,aka: dream sleep, our brain fuses all of this new information with the entirety of everything you’ve already stored in your memory banks, creating a continuously evolving and growing “mind-wide web of associations,” Dr. Walker explains.
What’s more, while we make associative connections during waking consciousness, the connections we make during REM sleep are “the long shots,” the more bizarre and sometimes illogical associations between seemingly disparate pieces of information. And this is precisely why our dreams oftentimes make no logical sense.
Quality Sleep Boosts Creativity
This is also why REM sleep allows us “to divine remarkably creative insight” into problems we could not solve during the day with logical, rational thinking. According to Dr. Walker, REM sleep is therefore crucial to acquiring wisdom, as opposed to straight knowledge, the ability to discern and extract meaning from your life experiences.
It is also Key to creative problem-solving, and many scientific discoveries have occurred as a result of dreaming.
An example is that of Otto Loewi, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery that the primary language of nerve cell communication is chemical, not electrical, as previously thought. The elegantly simple scientific experiment that led to Mr. Loewi’s award-winning discovery came to him in a dream.
The chemical responsible for nerve cell communication is now known as acetylcholine, which is also the chemical responsible for the randomization of data connections during dreaming, as it disrupts the connection between the hippocampus, where memories of events and places are stored, and the neocortex, where facts, ideas and concepts are stored and the actual replay of memories take place.
The overwhelming evidence shows increasing sleep boosts both productivity and creativity. Sleep increases your ability to gain insights that would otherwise remain elusive by about 250X. According to Dr. Walker, simply dreaming about performing an activity increases your actual physical performance 10X.
As old and new memories are integrated to form a new whole, new possible futures are also imagined. This is what you actually perceive as “the action” of your dream. The total of these processes is what allows you to assign meaning to life events and new pieces of information alike.
Sleep Deprivation Fuels Feelings of Loneliness
Walker also discusses some of his more recent research,which suggests loneliness may be closely tied to lack of sleep.
For this experiment, 18 young adults were tested under two conditions: after a good night’s sleep and after a night of interrupted sleep.
They were then asked to view video clips of people walking toward them, and were instructed to stop the tape once they felt the person’s presence was infringing on their personal space. Interestingly, after sleep deprivation, the participants’ need for personal space was much greater than after a good night’s sleep.
When sleep deprived, they stopped the oncoming person at a distance that was 60% greater than when they’d had a good night’s rest. Brain scans also revealed that when sleep-deprived, they had 60% greater activity in the amygdala, an area of the brain that perceives threats.
In other words, the oncoming person was perceived as more threatening when they were tired. This perceived threat amplification from sleep deprivation can also make you more anxious in general, so it may play an important role in anxiety as well.
The experiment suggests that the more sleep-deprived you are, the less social you become. What’s more, others pick up on this largely subconscious cue to be left alone, and further tests revealed people are more likely to rate you as being lonely when you’re sleep-deprived and they’re far less likely to want to interact with you as well.
As noted by Dr. Walker, “sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers.”
Loneliness has reached crisis proportions in the US and has severe health consequences.
For example, loneliness increases your all-cause mortality risk by 45%, Dr. Walker says, and he believes sleep deprivation may actually be a significant underlying factor.
The good news is this is something you have a lot of control over and can do something about.
So, do not skimp on Sleep!
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively