April 6, 2024

Memory consolidation: Matthew Walker and why we learn during sleep (2017)

by Mateusz Wiącek

Matthew Walker is a neuroscientist and professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is known for his research on sleep and its impact on human health and well-being. Walker has conducted extensive studies on the effects of sleep on memory, learning, and emotional regulation. He is the author of the bestselling book Why We Sleep and former Chief Sleep Scientist at Google.

In summary, he claims:

  • Memory consolidation: Walker emphasizes the crucial role of sleep in memory consolidation. During different stages of sleep, particularly during deep sleep (slow-wave sleep) and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the brain processes and consolidates memories from the day. This process enhances learning and helps in retaining information.
  • Learning during sleep: While it’s commonly known that active learning doesn’t occur during sleep, Walker does discuss the concept of “passive learning” during sleep. This involves exposure to information before sleep, and the brain continues to process and consolidate this information during the sleep cycles.

For language learning, that means that transfer of words, collocations and other language blocks happens mostly in the non-REM sleep. It is here where information is being moved from short-term memory to long-term memory.

But “learning” structure and grammar (i.e. patterns) happens in the REM part, which is responsible for creative thinking. Dreams experienced during REM sleep might contribute to problem-solving and creative insight. The brain’s unique activity during this phase may help in making novel connections between unrelated pieces of information.

For language learning this means that you need good sleep hygiene and regularity, and you might consider learning just before falling asleep. You can also play some recordings of foreign languages during sleep to help consolidate it even further.

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