While many scientists are one in their contention that sleep does boost the learning capacity, a new study revealed that different sleep stages also affect various facets of learning.

Psychologists from the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University in Rhode Island, looked into the role of the different stages of sleep in one's learning process. Their study, which focused on visual learning, showed that both sleep stages, particularly rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep, play a complementary role in the brain's learning capabilities.

Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the researchers found that during non-REM sleep, the body restores flexibility, thereby enhancing the performance of newly acquired skills. During REM sleep, these new skills are stabilised. It is at this stage that the learnings are retained and are prevented from being overwritten in case new skills are learned thereafter.

Yuka Sasaki, corresponding author and a professor of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University hoped that their study will help people realise the importance of both REM and non-REM in the learning process.

Since REM is the stage that stabilises learning, it is vital for sleep not to be cut short. The researchers noted that most REM sleep would happen during the final hours of sleep, so this stage must be given importance.

The researchers gave volunteers standard visual learning tasks. After completing the task, they were asked to sleep for 90 minutes, while their heads were placed inside MRI scanners.

After sleeping, they were allowed 30 minutes to get fully awake and were again tasked to perform the same activity before they slept, but this time around, with opposite orientation.

The scientists then used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to evaluate the activity of neurotransmitters during REM and non-REM, reports Medical News Today. They found that during REM stage, the brain retains information and makes it stable enough, preventing interference from any subsequent learning. During non-REM sleep, an improvement in newly learned tasks is achieved.

A woman sleeping
Supplement magnesium for good night's sleep. Photo: Pixabay

Hence, both non-REM and REM play vital roles in the learning process. Ensuring that the body experiences both sleep stages clearly maximises its ability to learn new tasks and retain the new information learned.