The Magic Pill for Learning

I’ve been reading Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. It was recommended by a client of mine and the book has some terrific insights and revelations related to sleep.  The most profound for me is the affect of sleep on my ability to learn. Sleep is the magic pill for learning.  The problem with this finding is that it’s so hard for me to set up my day to make sure I get enough sleep to create the environment that will let me do my best thinking and learning.  It would be so much easier to just take a “learning” pill.  In today’s world of constant distraction, twenty-four-hour connectivity and incessant demands on time, sleep seems to be on the short end of the stick. 

Here are the reasons to make sleep a priority for learning:


Sleep prepares your brain for encoding memories and learning. As quoted on News In Health, “We’ve learned that sleep before learning helps prepare your brain for initial formation of memories,” says Dr. Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.” So, getting at least 7 hours of sleep before preparing to learn something is important to set up your brain for success.  A good night’s sleep before your guitar lesson, before your Spanish class, before your study session with your classmates may be as important as the sleep before the exam or recital.


Your capacity to store information is linked to the amount of sleep you have received. As written on Found my Fitness, “Sleep also facilitates the more permanent storage of new information that has been stored in the hippocampus – the region of the brain responsible for the formation and consolidation of short-term memories. Sleep that occurs after exposure to new information fulfills the role of the brain’s “save button.” I think back to my undergraduate days at Cornell.  I always crammed for several hours right before I went to sleep.  I rarely looked at notes on the day of the test.  In retrospect, I was storing the information the night before.  I don’t remember if I was getting a good night’s sleep but I was definitely putting my sleep between me and the exam. Sleep creates a space for better storage.


Sleep is the mechanism by which your new learning is transferred into long term memories. As posited by Found my Fitness, “The intake and storage of mere short-term information are insufficient for optimal learning, however. The final, and perhaps most critical, way in which sleep aids in learning is that it provides a mechanism by which new information can be permanently stored – the formation of long-term memories via transfer to the brain’s cortex, where they can be retained and then retrieved for future use. Without this transfer phase, we run the risk of hippocampal-associated memory impairment.” I rarely, if ever, did an all-nighter while in college. Perhaps I realized that it was futile.  Like when I reread a sentence or bullet over and over again and couldn’t remember what I’d just read, I realize I’m too tired and go to sleep. The transfer of information won’t happen without a good night’s sleep.


There are studies where they were able to cue up study participants to remember certain aspects of learning.  As written by Dr. Walker, “When we sleep, memories and their associated events acquired during periods of wakefulness are reactivated. Essentially, the brain “replays” the events that occurred prior to sleeping, a process that stabilizes memories by serving as a pruning mechanism, selectively strengthening strongly associated memories and weakening weakly associated ones. A surprising fact is that this process can be amplified by “cueing” the reactivation during sleep with sub-awakening threshold sounds, odors, or other sensory cues – based on the context of the learning received the previous day.” Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out how to do this outside of the laboratory, but I think of cramming for an exam and how I would prime myself to remember certain aspects and try and disregard the periphery. Of course, there were the uncomfortable moments on an exam when the one section I didn’t study showed up and caught me up.  It was not “cued” up in my memory regardless of my sleep the night before.

I teach an evening online Human Resource Certification class at Duke University.  I polled the students the other night and almost all were tired and exhausted from the three-hour fire hose of information. Now I realize that they need to make sure they get a good night’s sleep the night before and, a good night’s sleep after to make sure the information gets solidified in memories. I had no idea that sleep was the magic pill for learning.  Are you getting enough sleep around your learning?

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.