One of the more pertinent results of productive sleep is the consolidation of memories. Let’s unpack, shall we?
Without delving too deeply into the specialized vocabulary and evolving hypotheses in sleep research, we can, for the sake of simplicity, concern ourselves with a few basic concepts: Non-rapid eye movement (NREM), rapid eye movement (REM), and sleep cycles. To go any deeper would lead us into a clash of competing scholarship, where researchers have it out with each other Hunger Games style in a battle for academic and intellectual supremacy. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but only a little.) For now, we’ll just focus on what the experts agree upon, but by all means, hit Google Scholar and look up the work of your favorite sleep researcher.
Productive sleep, in order to be productive, has to include the right amounts of both NREM and REM state sleep, and in the right order. We commonly associate REM with dreaming, the last stage in a sleep cycle. A full sleep cycle takes roughly about 90 minutes, with REM taking up about 20 to 30 minutes.
NREM and REM seem to have different functions in the memory consolidation process during sleep. Learning that involves motor skills or procedures – think of practicing a piece of music or learning some type of protocol that involves steps – seems to be strongly linked to NREM, even though test subjects do better in procedural tasks if they’ve been allowed REM sleep. In other words, memories don’t really get consolidated until we finally sink into REM state. Oh, and by the way, going through the whole cycle five or six or seven times is necessary for sleep to be productive.
So think of it this way, we do not actually fully learn a procedure or fully analyze anything until we’ve had the opportunity to sleep on it.
Sleep deprivation has become a grotesque badge of honor. How many people have you met who brag about how they need only three or four hours of sleep a night in order to be truly awesome, tacitly implying you should be deeply ashamed of yourself if you sleep more? This is based on a fallacy not supported by research, and that fallacy states that sleep time is time wasted. Decades of sleep research refute this notion. From a purely physical point of view, sleep time is certainly downtime. From the standpoint of learning and sharpening mental processes, for long-term problem solving as well as critical and creative thinking, sleep time is production time, if you allow it to be.
by Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist