Skill Learning and Sleeping

Learning a new skill requires a lot of repeating of particular movements: the more you practice, the better you get. When you do a new swimming drill, you are learning a new skill (or skills). I read recently about the association between these repetitions (or learning a new drill) and nighttime dreams.

According to Richard Restack (“Think Smart”), when you sleep the brain “replays the activity that occurred when something was learned during the previous day”. The more you learn during the day the ”greater the amount of replay during the night”. The greater the amount of replay at night, the better you will do that movement or drill the next day.

After the practice of a new skill or drill our brain needs a certain amount of time to “consolidate” the memories. “Consolidation occurs whether we’re awake or asleep” (R. Restack). However, according to Matthew Walker, director at Beth Deaconess Medical Center, consolidation also enhances our memories (in our example, memories of the new drill movements) but this enhancement almost exclusively happens during sleep. In other words, “This ‘off-line’ effect during sleep can produce additional learning” (Walker). You can learn new skills in your sleep!

Sleeping is extremely important in learning new things. If you are trying to learn new drills and you are chronically sleep deprived, it will take you much longer to master the skill because you are not going to benefit from the learning enhancement that only occurs during sleep. In fact, if you don’t get enough sleep, you might never master a new skill.

R. Restack brings a good example about learning a new tennis stroke, which is not different from learning a new swimming drill: “Initially you performance improved as a result of repeated repetition. But if you continued beyond a certain point, additional practice led to deterioration in your performance”. It happens because of “fatigue of those brain regions used during learning that new stroke”.

When this happens, R. Restack recommends ending your practice and not starting a new one until you get a good night sleep. “Thanks to the consolidations-enhancement nexus, you’ll wake the next morning with the brain circuits refreshed. As a results, your performance will incorporate all of the things you learned during your practice session the day before”.

To sum up, if you want to improve at anything, make sure you get a good night’s sleep… or a nice nap!