Sleep: Mental tools to master tough subjects

20-Cover.png

This morning, I was following the course “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects“ on coursera.org. The sequence on sleep was interesting and worth sharing:

You might be surprised to learn that just plain being awake creates toxic products in your brain. How does the brain get rid of these poisons? Turns out that when you sleep, your brain cells shrink. This causes an increase in the space between your brain cells. It's like unblocking a stream. Fluid can flow past these cells and wash the toxins out. So, sleep which can sometimes seem like such a waste of time is actually your brain's way of keeping itself clean and healthy. So, let's get right to a critical idea. Taking a test without getting enough sleep means you're operating with a brain that got little metabolic toxins floating around in it, poisons, and make it so you can't think very clearly. It's kind of like trying to drive a car that's got sugar in its gas tank, doesn't work too well. In fact, getting too little sleep doesn't just make you do worse on tests.

Too little sleep over too long of a time can also be associated with all sorts of nasty conditions including headaches, depression, heart disease, diabetes and just plain dying earlier. But sleep does more than just allow your brain to wash away toxins. It's actually an important part of the memory and learning process. It seems that during sleep, your brain tidies up ideas and concepts you're thinking about and learning. It erases the less important parts of memories and simultaneously strengthens areas that you need or want to remember. During sleep, your brain also rehearses some of the tougher parts of whatever you're trying to learn, going over and over neural patterns to deepen and strengthen them.

Sleep has also been shown to make a remarkable difference in your ability to figure out difficult problems and to understand what you're trying to learn. It's as if the complete deactivation of the conscious you in the prefrontal cortex at the forefront of your brain helps other areas of your brain start talking more easily to one another allowing them to put together the neural solution to your learning task while you're sleeping. Of course, you must also plant the seed for your diffuse mode by first doing focused mode work. If you're going over what you're learning right before you take a nap or going to sleep for the evening, you have an increased chance of dreaming about it. If you go even further and set it in mind that you want to dream about the material it seems to improve your chances of dreaming about it, still further. Dreaming about what you're studying can substantially enhance your ability to understand. It somehow consolidate your memories into easier to grasp chunks…