Researchers from the University of Freiburg in Germany have found that resting does not substitute the benefits of deep sleep when learning new things and performing intensive tasks in both work and everyday life.
While sleep has been known for some time as necessary for healthy functioning in both animals and humans, whether it was due to the active refinement of neural connections or having a break from novel input remained a mystery. Now, however, researchers have found that it is likely due to the former rather than the latter.
For the study, the researchers conducted a visual learning experiment with 66 people. To begin, each participant was trained to identify certain patterns. Then, while one group was engaged with playing table tennis or watching videos, another group slept for an hour, while the third group stayed awake in a darkened room without external stimuli under laboratory sleep conditions.
When the groups reconvened to identity patterns learned earlier, the researchers found that the group who slept performed significantly better than the other two groups. And the results, they say, are not because those who didn't sleep were too tired to perform well.
Instead, the researchers say that this improvement in performance came from typical deep-sleep activity in the brain. For example, deep sleep is known to increase the metabolism of glucose in the brain, something which has been shown to improve short-term and long-term memory, as well as overall learning.
While interesting results, due to the study's relatively limited sample size, further research may be needed to confirm them. Nevertheless, they show that sleep is the best way to consolidate new learning for intensive performance demands, and that rest by itself is no substitute. As such, the results may prove useful for students and working professionals when considering best practices for learning new skills.