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Studies have long proven that getting a good amount of sleep each night is important for both your body and your mind. But what about the role sleep plays in learning? According to Medical News Today, psychologists from the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University published a study in Nature Neuroscience that highlights two key forms of rest—non-REM and REM sleep—contribute to learning. "When people sleep at night, there are many sleep cycles. REM sleep appears at least three, four, five times, and especially in the later part of the night," Yuka Sasaki, author and professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University, said. "We want to have lots of REM sleep to help us remember more robustly, so we shouldn't shorten our sleep."
The researchers used visual learning to test the importance of the different sleep cycles and how they each play an important part in your rest routine. To do so, they asked volunteers to identify letters and line orientation before sleeping, which is also called "offline performance gains." The participants then slept for 90 minutes in an MRI scanner and were given 30 minutes after waking up—called "resilience to interference"—to identify letters and lines of a different orientation.
After analyzing their results, the researchers found that non-REM sleeps helped improve plasticity of the brain for the participants. In essence, they realized that non-REM sleep improves overall performance with newly-acquired skills by helping the mind with flexibility. But REM sleep is crucial, too. It helps stabilize the knowledge gained in the brain and helps people remember what they've learned without interfering with other information.
While they are still hoping to discover more, the researchers believe that analyzing sleep is the first step to learning more about how the brain functions in other ways of life. "Previously, we showed that rewards enhance visual learning through sleep, so we would like to understand how that works," Sasaki said. "It is ambitious, but maybe we could expand this research to other types of learning so we could better remember and develop better motor learning, visual skills, and creativity."