Don’t wake me, I’m learning

exploring: interplay of sleep & study
engaging: a simple diary beside the bed
learning:  be kind to your biorhythm

06. May 2011 by Basti Hirsch

We spend a good quarter of our life asleep. The rest we're out playing, learning, walking, eating. And we generally seem to pay little attention to those dark hours.

In their book NurtureShock Po Bronso and Ashley Merryman point to great research findings on the interplay of sleep quantity and school success. “Every single hour counts!” is Merryman's mantra in her PopTech talk. Especially during puberty teenagers are practically asleep in the wee morning hours, those same hours in which teachers already try putting clever ideas in their minds. Teaching against nature doesn't work.

I've been interested in the science of sleep since I did my civil service—in lieu of military service, then mandatory in Germany—on an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of our local hospital. Most work had to be done in the early shift, which meant getting up 5:20am to be there at half seven when the night shift ends. Surprisingly my body adapted rather well to this early rise.

During my university days sleep quality plummeted. There were many all-nighters to pull, many parties to be at, a few discount red-eye flights to catch. Having had the previous experience of great sleep and rising early this resulted in a half-serious poster on “The wonderful world of sleep”.

Now in the luxurious position of an education activist who sheds the regular 9to5 I adapted the habit of taking mid-day naps. “Pompous!” you say. “Like little kids!”, you may think. Besides the many cultures in the worlds where long mid-day naps or siesta are a given, even celebrated and protected as part of the national identity, there's been a stream of research on the interplay of sleep and learning.

While the 2005 Nature review article on “Clues to the functions of mammalian sleep” opened with the words “The functions of mammalian sleep remain unclear” latest neuroscience keeps showing a vital connection between good sleep and great learning. For one there's already a popular notion and an idiom in German: “Das lern ich doch im Schlaf!” — roughly: I'll (easily) learn that while I'm asleep. The other idea that's out there is studying with a book under your pillow, hoping the wisdom manifested on its printed pages will somehow magically transfer into your head.


That's not how it works.

What sleep science and learning specialists now seem to agree on is that the brain works hard at night to filter its garbage, the non-noteworthy clutter, the billion thoughts and ideas you had during the day. What isn't filtered out, the ten-thousand bits and pieces that may still be relevant the next day, are consolidated and become part of your mid-term memory. When certain knowledge or facts are kept being repeated day in and day out, like your parents’ names or your way to work, they are committed to your long-term memory.

Now what do you with this? Knowing about the importance of sleep can help you learn better. But teens and people of all ages young at heart won‘t like to know about this until there is some playDUcative tool to create insight and reflection in a fun way - here are two of them: 

Béa recently got me Keel‘s ‘A Simple Diary’ that I started writing in before going to bed. I also use to as a sleep diary, noting the times I write in it, as well the hour I rise and shine. Over time I hope to get a better sense of how much sleep my body needs and some hard data on whether or not the naps really help. Granted, it's self-reported data and won't hold up to scientific standards, but I still consider it a useful guidance and a way of putting the findings from sleep science into personal practice.

playDucation Keel's Simple Diary

As most people around the world in favor of the „learning revolution“ are advocates of the use of digital technology for learning, you will probably also like another tool called f.lux , a little helper app for your computer that dims its screen at night. However it doesn't only make it a little darker to avoid eye strain at night, it actually changes your screen's color temperature over the course of the day. Much like the sun has a golden glow at dawn, this helps the circadian rhythm in your body to not be throw off by the bright white-and-blue Facebook feed that you're “just checking for a minute!” way past midnight.

Go back

blog comments powered by Disqus