It’s clear that poor sleep causes health problems and can help you live a healthy disease-free life. But sleep also has a powerful effect on both mental and physical performance. This is true for exercise, sports, playing music, academics, and most other pursuits. Let’s think about the positive effects of sleeping better and how that can help us learn better.

The main stages of sleep – NREM and REM, each have different effects on our ability to learn and create. Simply, the first half of sleep is for mental recovery and learning, and the second half is for physical recovery and creativity.

Sleep Soundly to Be More Creative

We have 80-100 billion neurons and each neuron has hundreds to thousands of connections to other neurons. It is these patterns of neurons and the connections between them that allow us to encode new learning, movement patterns and memories. The key is that the growth of new neurons and the new connections happens at night while we sleep. So if you want to ensure that you are being as creative as you can, that you can solve difficult problems, or come up with new ways of performing a task then sleep should be at the top of your list of priorities.

Recently, REM sleep has been identified as an incredibly creative state. In a study at the University of California-San Diego, researchers found that REM sleep “directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleep or wake state.” Yes, you heard that right – you are more creative during REM sleep than any time when you are awake! 

Sleep Soundly to Learn Better

Pulling an all-nighter get ready for exams is common. In a school that I visited this year a Principal told me that many of the students show up to school with an array of energy drinks after staying up late studying. This is hardly a high performance approach.

When we sleep we create new connections between neurons (1). Connections are critical, because it is those connections that form the basis for our thoughts, memories, problem solving, decision-making, motor patterns (how we move), and other important aspects of what makes us human. Scientists in China and the US have recently used a microscope to witness new synapses being formed in the brain during deep and sustained sleep (2). What exactly was it they could see? In short, they watched the brain building memories. This study made visible the brain’s work of replaying the day’s activity like a movie and building new connections between neurons during sleep.