After the lesson, your brain keeps processing what you’ve learned
Posted by Dean Holden at June 22nd, 2013
by Annie Murphy Paul, 29 April 2013
You learn something. You stop. You go on to something else. But your brain is still actively processing the learning experience, for four to six hours afterward—and the brain calls it up for processing again when you go to sleep that night. All of this “off-line” activity is best understood as a continuing part of the learning experience, and one reason that sleep is so crucial to the acquisition of new knowledge and skills.
This was demonstrated by a new study published in the journal Psychology of Music and reported on by the website ScienceDaily:
“Performance of a musical task improved among pianists whose practice of a new melody was followed by a night of sleep”, says researcher Sarah E. Allen, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. The study is among the first to look at whether sleep enhances the learning process for musicians practicing a new piano melody.
‘The goal is to understand how the brain decides what to keep, what to discard, what to enhance, because our brains are receiving such a rich data stream and we don’t have room for everything,’ Allen said.
The study adds to a body of research in recent decades that has found the brain keeps processing the learning of a new motor skill even after active training has stopped. That’s also the case during sleep.
Researchers in the field of procedural memory consolidation have systematically examined the process in both rats and humans. Studies have found that after practice of a motor skill, such as running a maze or completing a handwriting task, the areas of the brain activated during practice continue to be active for about four to six hours afterward. Activation occurs whether a subject is, for example, eating, resting, shopping or watching TV, Allen said.
Also, researchers have found that the area of the brain activated during practice of the skill is activated again during sleep, essentially recalling the skill and enhancing and reinforcing it. For motor skills such as finger-tapping a sequence, research found that performance tends to be 10 percent to 13 percent more efficient after sleep, with fewer errors.
‘There are two phases of memory consolidation. We refer to the four to six hours after training as stabilization. We refer to the phase during sleep as enhancement,’ Allen said. ‘We know that sleep seems to play a very important role. It makes memories a more permanent, less fragile part of the brain.’” (Read more here.)
If you skimp on sleep, you’re skimping on learning time.