Sleep helps learning, memory

Harvey B. Simon, M.D.

Editor, Harvard Health

Picture the peaceful sleeper nestled under the covers: body at rest, breathing and pulse slow and steady. But beneath that serene surface, the brain is hard at work, processing the events of the day. It sorts and files, makes connections, and even solves problems. As I write in the February 2012 Harvard Men’s Health Watch, even a brief nap may boost learning, memory, and creative problem solving.

Several recent studies strengthen the connection between sleep and learning.

Reactivate and reorganize. A 2010 Harvard study suggested that dreaming may reactivate and reorganize recently learned material, which would help improve memory and boost performance. In the study, volunteers learned to navigate a complex maze. During a break, some were allowed to nap for 90 minutes, others weren’t. When the volunteers tackled the maze again, only the few who dreamed about it during their naps did better.

Shorter naps. In another Harvard study, college student volunteers memorized pairs of unrelated words, worked on a maze puzzle, and copied an intricate figure. All were tested on their work, and half were allowed to nap for 45 minutes. During a retest, napping boosted the performance of volunteers who initially did well on the test, but didn’t help those who scored poorly the first time around.

Micro naps. For many people, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find 45 minutes to nap. In a German study, a six-minute snooze helped volunteers recall a list of 30 words they had memorized earlier.

Sleep and creativity. Naps are generally too short to let a person drop into the deep phase of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is the phase during which most dreams happen. California researchers gave volunteers a series of creative problems in the morning and asked them to spend the day mulling solutions before being tested late in the afternoon. Half the volunteers were asked to stay awake during the day, the others were encouraged to nap. Those whose naps were long enough to enter REM sleep for a while did 40% better on the test than nappers who didn’t get any REM sleep and non-nappers. Rather than simply boosting alertness and attention, REM sleep allowed the brain to work creatively on the problems that had been posed before sleep.

Napping won’t make you smart or assure success, but it can help improve your memory and solve problems. Sleeping well at night, and long enough, is associated with good health. The combination is a two-step approach that should give everyone something to sleep on.

You can read the complete article on the Harvard Men’s Health Watch home page.


  1. Allan Marsh

    thanks for the posting, very fully picture…i don’t believe with all this things ..i am a small businessman and i love to work all the day, similarly love to sleep hole night.

  2. Amren

    These tips are really very helpful to improve sleep. I will follow these.

  3. mark

    sleeping ? i like sleeping , but i can not sleep every night beccause there arre many homework . so did you say ” sleeping helps learning ” ??

  4. Binary Intel

    Great article on the power of sleep. I was baffled to learn so much. Will there be a updated study?

  5. Anonymous

    Sleep serves not only to memory also to lose weight fast.

  6. rachell

    and I agree to it as I have experienced it myself while studying for exams, when I was a teenager; And fast loss yes.

  7. Rich Reider

    Why after a nap would one feel un-rested, Nice article, I always try to get 8 hors of sleep each night.
    Rich Reider

  8. tatuaggi

    Hello, I am a tatuaggi artist.. and I agree to it as I have experienced it myself while studying for exams, when I was a teenager.

  9. napTester

    There are some country with the traditions in “taking naps”. Once upon a time my grandfather has fallen the tree and the tooked a 30 minutes nap :)–>

  10. Make My Trip

    I’m not sure I like the idea of sleeping during the day.

  11. Shawn

    really good post

  12. kına malzemeleri

    I’m not sure I like the idea of sleeping during the day.

  13. dody

    thank you

  14. Alan

    In a recent report by the National Institute of Health (NIH), it is estimated that more than 60 million Americans suffer from insomnia every year. While this number affects men and women of all ages, including children, it has been discovered that insomnia is more common in the older populating and affects more women than men.But the term insomnia takes into account anything from people who have trouble falling asleep to people who have trouble staying asleep. And the reasons for this condition are just as vast.Among some of the culprits are drinking too much caffeine, smoking, and drinking alcohol. These substances are known to affect sleep. But in this mix are also certain medications, illnesses, environment, pain and our emotions. Emotions such as worry, anxiety and depression can cause a night of tossing and turning. Insomnia has many side effects such as irritability, fatigue, depression, loss of alertness and memory. Running from mild (once a month) to chronic (displaying symptoms three times a week), insomnia can rob the average American of health and happiness.But there is help, and it doesn’t require a prescription. It’s Reiki

  15. Mark Cody

    I have been having power naps more frequently but maybe thats a sign of me getting old

  16. 英会話教材

    Sleeping helps me with my Japanese studies. I sometimes have dreams in Japanese.

  17. Carey Miles

    I’m not sure I like the idea of sleeping during the day. I always feel worse afterwards.

  18. Alun Henderson

    I have regular power naps as my age requires them! I find I can cope better in the afternoon after 30 mins of sleep.

    Alun Henderson

  19. Michael Tibus

    I am a firm believer that naps should be a part of daily life. I can see why other cultures take time out for a siesta. From you post, I do agree that your memory is enhanced from taking naps but I also believe (unscientific of course) that there is an anti-aging effect from taking naps as well. I’m 42 and I constantly get shocked looks from people who think I am 30. I have been taking naps since my high school days.

    Michael Tibus

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