Sleep plays a crucial role in learning in general and reading in specific. WebMD reports that researchers believe sleep affects both learning and memory formation in two ways: 1) An individual’s ability to focus on reading material or lecture presentations to learn efficiently depends on adequate sleep, and 2) Cementing a memory so that it can be recalled at a later time also depends on adequate sleep.
There are two components of sleep – getting enough sleep during the night so you awaken refreshed and ready to go, and napping during the day, particularly after you’ve taken in a large amount of information. Learned information is stored in short-term memory. Memories can be fact-based, such as learning the names of all the United States’ presidents; they can be episodic, where you remember events that happen in your life, such as meeting your spouse or having a birthday party; and they can also be procedural/instructional such as learning how to ride a bike.
For something to become a memory, three functions must occur:
- Acquisition of information – learning or experiencing something new
- Consolidation – storing the memory in a stable form
- Recall – having the ability to access the memory at a later time
Acquisition and recall take place while you are awake; however, researchers believe sleep is necessary for consolidation of a memory, no matter what type the memory is. Studies involving memory tests show that after just one night of sleep, people perform better on tests, whether those tests are factual, physical, or instructional.
And then there are naps. A number of recent studies have shown that taking a nap in the middle of the day after you’ve learned something new can help you retain the information much longer than if you remain awake. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley took a group of healthy adults and divided them into two groups. Both groups were given a rigorous fact-based learning task at noon designed to test their information recall, and both groups performed at comparable levels on that test. Then, one half of the group took a 90-minute nap – a period long enough to go through a full sleep cycle – while the other group stayed awake. At 6:00 p.m., both groups were once again given a round of tasks. Those who had taken the nap performed significantly better and actually improved in their capacity to learn, according to the researchers.
Matthew Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at Berkeley and the lead investigator of the study said that exactly why the nap works “is still a mystery. One theory is that particular types of brain-wave patterns that occur during sleep help change the storage locations of recently stored information from short-term to long-term, such that when you wake up, the short-term capacity for new memory formation is refreshed.” This finding reinforced the researchers’ hypothesis that sleep is needed to clear the brain’s short-term memory storage in the hippocampus, which then makes room for new information. It also explains why pulling an all-nighter before an exam leaves you with very little recall after the test is through.
So how does this affect reading? If you are sleep-deprived and have a hard time concentrating, it will be much harder to read through material with good comprehension; you may find yourself regressing frequently, reading and re-reading passages many times to try to understand what the author is saying. And, if your initial comprehension is poor, there will be little information to store in long-term memory for recall. It is best to approach reading when you are rested and alert so that you can read through the material with both speed and comprehension. This is also true when training with AceReader. If you try to train when you can’t focus on the activities, you will get very little lasting information from them and will probably have to repeat them later. If you train when you are well rested, you will be able to learn the new techniques much more easily, setting yourself on a path to become a more efficient reader.