The Impact of Sleep on Learning and Memory Retention

Over the past century, studies have shown that sleep is crucial for our brains to function properly, especially when it comes to learning and remembering things.Understanding sleep, learning, and memory is complex and still not fully grasped. Studies involving both animals and humans suggest that how much and how well we sleep greatly influences our ability to remember things and learn new information.


Sleep is a temporary state where you are less responsive to your surroundings and less active. This is a normal process where you gradually lose consciousness. Sleep comes regularly and is regulated by your body’s need for rest, meaning if you miss sleep or sleep late, you’ll need more sleep later to make up for it.

Sleep, Learning and Memory Retention

Moreover, the benefits of sleep on learning and memory retention appear in two distinct ways. First, lack of sleep makes it difficult to learn anything effectively. Second, sleep plays an important role in learning by aiding in the consolidation of memories. Although the exact mechanisms behind learning and memory retention remain a mystery, they are generally classified into three stages: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Acquisition involves storing new information in memory, while recall refers to the process of retrieving previously stored knowledge, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Sleep boosts learning ability

When we learn facts and information, our brains initially store them in a part called the hippocampus. Some scientists think that the hippocampus, like other storage areas, can only hold so much. So, if it’s full and we try to learn more, we might struggle.

In addition, many scientists believe that sleep, especially during stages 2 and 3, helps restore our ability to learn. For example, in one study, 44 participants engaged in two intensive learning sessions, one at noon and the other at 6:00 p.m. Half of them took naps between sessions, while the rest did regular activities. Interestingly, the group that took naps between learning sessions showed no difficulty learning at 6:00 PM compared to noon. However, the group that did not nap showed a significant decrease in learning ability.

Sleep enhances the ability to remember information

Humans have recognized the benefits of sleep for memory since ancient times. For example, in the first century AD, the rhetorician Quintilian observed, “It is a curious fact, the reason for which is not clear, that a night’s rest will greatly increase the power of the memory.

In the past hundred years, scientists have repeatedly investigated this idea, frequently discovering that sleep enhances memory retention and recall by around 20 to 40 percent. Recent studies suggest that Stage 3 sleep (deep non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep, or Slow Wave Sleep) might be particularly crucial for improving memory retention and recall.

Memory and sleep are closely related

The relationship between sleep and memory is complex. Getting enough rest helps your brain process new information when you wake up, and sleeping after learning can solidify that information into memories, allowing you to store it in your brain.

In a healthy adult’s sleep pattern, there are four main stages. The first two stages are light NREM sleep, while the third stage is deep (or “slow wave”) NREM sleep. These steps help your brain get ready to learn new things the next day. If you don’t sleep enough or at all, your ability to learn can drop by up to 40 percent.

While you’re in the NREM stages of sleep, your brain sorts through the memories you made during the day. It holds onto the important ones and lets go of the less important ones. As you enter deep NREM sleep, these important memories get stronger, and this sorting process continues into REM sleep. During REM sleep, your brain also processes emotional memories, which can help you deal with tough experiences.

Moreover, most dreams occur during REM sleep. During this stage, the thalamus of your brain sends signals from your five senses to the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for interpreting and processing information stored in your memories. While the thalamus is mostly inactive during NREM stages, it becomes active again when REM sleep begins. It transmits images, sounds and other sensations to the cerebral cortex, which then incorporates them into your dreams.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Brain Function and Memory

Moreover, individuals who fail to get adequate sleep may encounter the consequences of sleep deprivation. One common symptom is difficulty remembering things. This occurs because the brain lacks enough time to establish new pathways for recently acquired information, thereby affecting memory consolidation. Additionally, sleep deprivation can lead to challenges in learning and focusing, diminished decision-making abilities, and impaired emotional and behavioral control.

Moreover, the amount of sleep necessary each night significantly relies on your age. Furthermore, research has shown that children also benefit from enhanced memory consolidation following a restful night’s sleep, similar to adults. However, it’s important to note that excessive sleep can also result in cognitive impairments. Hence, it’s essential for individuals to aim for the optimal amount of nightly sleep to promote learning and memory retention, as both insufficient and excessive sleep can have adverse consequences.

Sleep Apnea and its Impact on Memory

Moreover, considering the significant impact of sleep on learning and memory retention, certain sleep disorders are connected to memory issues. For example, insomnia, which involves persistent difficulty in falling or staying asleep, can lead to daytime cognitive impairments, including decreased memory function. Additionally, sleep disorders like narcolepsy, which result in excessive daytime sleepiness, may also contribute to memory lapses.

Sleep on Learning and Memory Retention
Image Credit:(Baylor University)

Another disorder called sleep apnea might contribute to memory loss. Sleep apnea involves temporary pauses in breathing during sleep, which can make people choke or gasp for air. Heavy snoring and feeling excessively sleepy during the day are also typical symptoms of sleep apnea.

Over 900 million people worldwide have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a type of sleep disorder where a physical blockage interrupts breathing. OSA is closely connected to chronic depression. Those with depression often struggle to process memories, especially ones about their own experiences. People with OSA also face challenges with memory consolidation.

In a particular study investigating the impact of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and depression on memory processing, the results indicated that individuals with OSA had greater difficulty in forming semantic memories, which are specific facts from personal history, compared to the control group. This outcome is expected, as adequate sleep is crucial for effectively consolidating semantic memories, and OSA disrupts the sleep cycle through sleep fragmentation. Intriguingly, OSA did not have the same level of impact on the consolidation of episodic memories, which are memories related to events and experiences.

Sleep Stages and Types of Memory

Furthermore, sleep researchers explore the relationship between learning and memory in two main ways. Firstly, they examine how learning new activities affects different phases and duration of sleep. Secondly, they investigate how sleep loss impacts the learning process.

Different types of memories are formed in novel learning situations. Scientists are currently investigating whether there is a connection between memory consolidation and various sleep phases.

Early research on sleep and memory primarily focused on declarative memory, which involves factual knowledge. For instance, in a study, intensive language learners experienced increased rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage associated with most dreams.

Initially, scientists believed that REM sleep facilitates learning, particularly in declarative memory tasks involving complex or emotionally charged material. However, this association is not observed in simple and neutral tasks.

Recently, slow-wave sleep (SWS), a phase of deep and restorative sleep, has been proposed to play a critical role in declarative memory by processing and integrating newly acquired information. However, studies investigating the relationship between sleep and declarative memory have produced conflicting results.


In conclusion, sleep plays a crucial role in learning and memory retention. Researchers continue to explore the intricate relationship between different sleep stages and types of memory, aiming to better understand how sleep influences our ability to learn and remember information. As our understanding evolves, it becomes increasingly clear that prioritizing healthy sleep habits is essential for optimizing cognitive function and overall well-being.

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