June 08, 2004
Brain Slow Wave Activity In Sleep Higher When Learning

If one learns a task in the evening then the amount of slow-wave activity (SWA) in the brain while sleeping is increased.

Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues measured electrical brain signals in subjects who learned a simple computer game before going to sleep.

The kind of activity that occurs during sleep was increased in a penny-sized region in the brains of slumbering subjects who had learned the game. Just playing the game did not have this effect. The researchers conclude that sleep falls on brain circuits that have been changed, not just used, during the day.

And someone with more of such activity in this area, which is in the top right hemisphere, tends to perform better in the morning, they report in a paper published online by Nature1

This study brings up an interesting question: Is one better off learning things right before bedtime rather than earlier in the day? Is new learning more likely to be translated into lasting changes in brain wiring if the learning episode is closer to the time one goes to sleep? The idea seems plausible because mice delayed from getting to sleep after learning have their learning blocked. So evening is probably the better time to study.

Think of each sleep episode as a chance to learn more information. Looked at in that light it may make more sense to spread learning out over longer periods by studying every day rather than concentrating a larger amount of learning into a smaller number of days. Also, it might make more sense to learn a lot on days when you know you'll be able to get a full night's sleep.

I've previously argued that the development of drugs that would allow more rapid cycling through sleep and wakefulness might allow accelerated learning. Also see my previous post Long Term Memories Processed By Anterior Cingulate.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 June 08 02:21 PM  Brain Memory

Fly said at June 8, 2004 7:45 PM:

“Is one better off learning things right before bedtime rather than earlier in the day?”

Another approach would be an intense period of study followed by an hour or two of sleep. Repeat as desired. How much sleep is needed to consolidate learning? How long after study does sleep help consolidation? I seem to remember memory formation being a three-step process. Some changes occur within minutes, the next stage hours, and the last stage a day. Memory formation can be stopped by chemically interfering with any of those stages.

John said at June 9, 2004 9:44 AM:

I am not too keen on neurology, but I will submit my thoughts anyway. Wouldn't you need to be in the "deeper" stages of sleep to really "focus" on certain things? Thus, it would seem like having a couple of hours of sleep would be insufficient. Also, how well could the brain "recap" on the intense period of studying in just those few hours? It just seems like the body is not quite asleep and not quite "awake". I may be wrong, I don't know much about the brain, these are just my thoughts.

Fly said at June 9, 2004 3:13 PM:


Yep, could be. Seems each discovery leads to a host of new questions.

Some people are concerned that we are breeding intelligence out of the human race. I believe that cultural evolution occurs far more rapidly than biological evolution.

So better food technology provides better nutrition and that raises the average IQ. Better schooling leads to better learning and reasoning. (At it should and it does in upper middle class schools.) Better understanding of the brain should allow much better teaching methodologies. New biotech should lead to nutrional supplements (drugs) that increase memory, concentration, mood control, and IQ.

This report is one step on that path.

Shiloh said at June 10, 2004 2:11 PM:


Probably the upper middle class school results differences are because the parents value education. The children grow up in an atmosphere where learning is valued.

How do we educate those at the bottom of our society when they have few models that value learning? There are always a few in every generation that get the vision of learning...

Avinash said at November 4, 2004 9:27 AM:

well, i'm not so sure whether sleep actually accelrates learning. this finding, and many similar ones in recent times, seem to support the hypothesis that sleep is necessary for stabilizing memories, and learning processes. think of sleep more of a 'rest' state for the brain/mind, rather than something that is actually part of the learning/memory process.

so, the brain is just stabilizing itself, as leanring and memory formation have been shown to cause increased neuronal activity - right from the activity of proteins to long term gene expression changes.

as for the mice which didnt learn when sleep was delayed - im sure one wouldnt learn much when you are tired and havent been able to sleep.

as to which time of the day would be better to learn - who knows? that would involve much more study into how our biological clock is tied to the rest of our body functions

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