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The importance of sleep when learning

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It’s probably fair to say that learning has seldom been given greater importance in the workplace.  Indeed, learning, both on an individual and organizational level, sits at the very heart of what a social business is.  Doing it well therefore is kinda important.

I wrote recently about the role caffeine plays in the way we learn.  A study showed that a shot of caffeine helped people to absorb information from a class better than their de-caffeinated peers.  The timing was key however, with the caffeine only working if taken after the learning, not before.

Of course, caffeine also tends to play a role in the quantity and quality of sleep we get, which places that study in direct conflict with another, published recently, that highlights the role of sleep in absorbing new information.

The study showed that when we sleep after learning, our brain is encouraged to create connections between brain cells.  These dendritic spines enable the flow of information across synapses.

“We’ve known for a long time that sleep plays an important role in learning and memory. If you don’t sleep well you won’t learn well.

But what’s the underlying physical mechanism responsible for this phenomenon?

Here we’ve shown how sleep helps neurons form very specific connections on dendritic branches that may facilitate long-term memory.

We also show how different types of learning form synapses on different branches of the same neurons, suggesting that learning causes very specific structural changes in the brain.” the researchers say.

Of course, allowing employees to have a nap at work is one of those things that, whilst proven to be both popular and effective, is something that few organizations, or even employees themselves, would consider.  There are a multitude of studies highlighting the important role sleep has on our performance at work, but it is also something that we don’t always appreciate ourselves.

A study by Cornell back in 2011 found that when given the choice between higher wages and sleep, many would choose the bigger pay packet.  They asked more than 2,600 people to consider whether being paid $150,000 with long hours (just 6 hours sleep) would make them happier than an $80,000 job that allowed them 7.5 hours sleep. Framed in that way it’s perhaps not surprising that people would gladly trade $70,000 extra per year for an hours less sleep per night.

Given that a recent survey by Silent Night found that 1/3 of us want more sleep, maybe this is something managers need to take into their own hands if they want to promote a learning and productive workforce.

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