The Learning Process and Sleep

Sleep, learning, and memory are complex phenomena that are not entirely understood. The quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory. A sleep-deprived person cannot pay attention, focus optimally which in fact impacts his learning and other daily activities. Sleep plays a major role in consolidating memory, which is crucial for learning new things.

Although the exact mechanisms are not known, memory and learning are often described in terms of three functions. Acquisition refers to the accumulation of new information in the brain. Consolidation refers to the processes that are involved to stabilize the memory. Recall defines the ability of a person to access the new information (whether consciously or unconsciously) once it has been stored.

Each of these steps is vital for proper memory function. While acquisition and recall occur only during wakefulness, research suggests that memory consolidation takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories.

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Learning and Performance

Lack of sufficient sleep has a negative impact on learning and memory. In case of sleep deprivation, our attention, focus and vigilance drift, making it difficult to accumulate and store information. Without the much required sleep, over-worked neurons can no longer function optimally to coordinate information correctly as a result of which we lose our ability to access previously learned information.

In addition, our interpretation of events also gets adversely affected. We lose the ability to make the right decisions since various aspects such as assessing the situation; planning accordingly and choosing the correct behavior get affected. Muscles are not rested, neurons do not fire optimally and the body’s organ systems are not synchronized. Lack of focus due to sleep deprivation can even result in accidents and injury.

Costly, Preventable Accidents

Insufficient sleep may not have led the news in reporting on serious accidents in recent decades. However, that doesn’t mean fatigue and lack of attention due to sleep deprivation didn’t play a role in these disasters. For example, investigations have concluded that sleep deprivation played a significant factor in the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, as well as the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Findings on the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, and also the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, have confirmed that sleep deprivation played a vital role in these accidents. In both cases, people in charge of the operations and those involved in making crucial decisions were operating under conditions of extreme sleep deprivation. While the Challenger disaster put the multi-billion dollar shuttle program in danger, the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused incalculable ecological, environmental, and economic loss. In India, the Bhopal gas tragedy and the recent Mangalore airplane crash resulted due to sleep deprivation.

In addition to the ties between such high-profile disasters and sleep deprivation, there is an increasing link between lack of sleep and medical errors at hospitals. Long work shifts and other factors that result in sleep loss have safety consequences on our highways as well.