I’ve looked at a few kids, like at the store, and one thing I’ve noticed is that they sleep a LOT. Why is that? And while we’re at it, why is it that I spent an entire controller-crushing hour trying to figure out that one level in the puzzle game Braid before giving up and then nailing it on the first try after a good night’s sleep?
Actually, both these questions have a related answer. Sleep, it turns out, is integral to learning. Some psychologists and neurologists believe that sleepy time –especially deep REM sleep– is the time when your brain releases key chemicals to throw up the “under construction” signs and rearrange your neural connections based on what you’ve been exposed to. ((Maquet, P. (2001). The role of sleep in learning and memory. a one-year delay. Science 294, 1048–1052.)) This is one possible reason why babies sleep so much: they literally have to shut down to assimilate what they’ve taken in.
And in addition to generally refreshing you and resharpening your reflexes, sleep seems to have a similar effect on learning tasks that involve precise, manual finger movements. In one study of this phenomenon ((Robertson, E.M., Pascual-Leone, A. and Press, D.Z. (2004). Awareness modifies the skill-learning benefits of sleep. Current Biology 14, 208-212.)) researchers had subjects complete an exercise where they tapped buttons based on what they saw on a computer screen, and if that’s not a dead on description of a video game I’m not sure what is. There was an underlying pattern to the stimulus, and subjects were either told to try and uncover the pattern or they were left to their own insights. When the subjects were invited back to repeat the task, the researchers found that those who had gotten a full night of rest saw dramatic improvements in their performance while those who had just taken a 15 minute break saw no such increase. Other research ((Walker, M.P., Brakefield, T., Morgan, A., Hobson, J.A., and Stickgold, R. (2002). Practice with sleep makes perfect: sleepdependent motor skill learning. Neuron 35, 205–211.)) found that a full night of sleep yields a 20% improvement in similar tasks.
But that’s not where the benefits of sleep on task performance end. Other research has shown that sleep also increases creativity and problem solving. So the next time you’re enraged your inability to time a series of jumps or figure out how to make a mustache out of a piece of tape and a cat ((Name that reference in the comments section for bonus points)), try sleeping on it. Let your brain take what it’s gotten and make some sense out of it without your standing there over its shoulder and making demands.