October 23, 2007
Sleep and scholarship
I have been chronically sleep-deprived since college. Perhaps as a consequence, I have become interested in sleep research over the years (and I have been diligent about trying to teach my kids good sleep hygiene!).
Not a lot is known about the role of sleep for cognitive activities, but much more is known than a couple of decades ago. What does this have to do with scholarship? Many research studies indicate that long-term memory formation, learning, complex skill performance, and creativity are strongly affected by sleep patterns.
A good place to start learning about sleep research is Stanford Professor William Dement's The Promise of Sleep. He explains the basic physiology of the sleep cycle and summarizes the state of sleep research (as of about 2000), with interesting results on memory, reaction time, learning, etc.
A lengthy article in today's New York Times reports on research by Dement, recent work by Prof. Matthew Walker at Berkeley, and others, on the role of sleep in learning and memory. For example, there is a large body of evidence now that the period of deep sleep that occurs relatively early during a normal night of sleep is crucial for encoding and strengthening declarative memory (like memorized facts).
Stage 2 sleep, on the other hand, which mostly occurs during the second half of the night, seems critical for mastering motor tasks (like playing the piano).
A story on LiveScience.com reports on other research by Walker showing that emotional responses to negative stimuli dramatically intensify in the sleep-deprived.
Po Bronson wrote another lengthy journalistic article summarizing research on sleep and learning in New York Magazine (2007).
One piece of suggestive evidence that I find particularly compelling (because of my passion for playing the piano): In his famous studies on deliberate practice and expertise acquisition, K. Ericsson and co-authors reported that the best violinists got measurably more sleep than good violinists and teachers, and also took more naps (1993).