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How Sleep Lets You Outperform Your Competition (Fascinating Research)

Sleep is probably the easiest way to improve your performances behind the school desk and on the pitch. Yes, sleep might be the secret sauce.

And in this article I’ll prove it to you.

You’ll learn that your brain gets cleaned when you sleep, why sleep is highly important for learning new things, and why you perform better on more sleep.

Let’s jump straight in.

The Glymphatic System

Your brain basically cleans itself when you sleep. During the day you accumulate waste products such as soluble proteins and metabolites in your brain. [1] [2] The cleaning process in the brain is done by the glymphatic system. It’s active when you sleep and largely inactive during wakefulness.

When a person lies down to sleep at night, the brain undergoes a process that is crucial to learning, memory, and creativity in ways that scientists are only now beginning to understand.David K. Randall

Now, why is that important?

Think of your brain as your desk. The place where you learn. You start off with a clean, dusted, and clutter-free desk (that’s how I imagine my brain after several full nights of sleep). This desk is perfect. It’s like the dream desk where you can learn like a superstar.

When you learn during the day you use several books, dictionaries, exercise papers, and you take notes. So, as you learn intensely your desk gets an overload of stuff and papers etc. The same happens to your brain during the day. I imagine that after a day of work, kids, thousands of impressions, reading a book, watching TV, learning a new language, and checking Facebook once or twice, our brain looks like the overloaded desk with paper piles, folders, books, and paper balls all over the place. Our brain is completely packed with stuff after a long day.

And that’s when the night enters the game.

In the evening, when you’ve finished learning at your desk, it’s time to clean it. You put away the books, dictionaries, notes, and exercise files etc. You clean your desk so you can work again at your dream desk the next day. A similar process happens to your brain when you sleep (enough). Your brain gets cleaned. And what you’ve learned gets stored, what you don’t need anymore gets shredded. So you can start off the next day with the perfect brain to live and learn.

What happens if you don’t clean your desk / if you don’t get enough sleep?

Well, you start off with a massive chaos the next day:

  • You don’t find your stuff
  • You don’t remember what you’ve learned
  • You get exhausted & stressed out from all the clutter

In short: You’re less productive, more tired and remember less.

Quintessence: Get enough sleep so that your brain gets a chance to clean itself.

Sleep and Learning

The point is that sleep is vital for learning. While you sleep your brain stores away information you’ve acquired during the day so you have space for more the next day.
Study after study confirms that when you get sleep after your learning session you’ll remember more. (Get a research overview here, here and here.) [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

  • Sleep before you learn prepares your brain
  • Sleep after learning is essential to store what you’ve learned
  • If you haven’t slept your ability to learn new things collapses by 40%
  • Certain memories improve while you sleep (e.g. playing piano)
  • A full night of sleep helps you solve problems
  • With less than 6 hours of sleep you improve 12% less than with a full night of sleep
  • Older adults (60+) have more trouble remembering things due to shorter deep sleep stages

Sleep prepares the brain like a dry sponge, ready to soak up new information.Sleep researcher Dr. Matthew Walker

Okay, sleep is extremely important for your memory and learning. What does this mean for everyday life?

Sleep more for Better Academic Performance

A few years ago, Avi Sadeh from Tel Aviv University did a study with fourth- and sixth-graders. Some should get 30 minutes more, and others 30 minutes less sleep. [8] The results speak for themselves:

The results revealed that the small amount of sleep loss was equivalent to the loss of two years of development, with sleepy sixth-graders performing like fourth-graders.Richard Wiseman

In another study scientists looked at more than 3000 high-school students in Massachusetts and found out that A- and B-grade students were going to bed about 40 minutes earlier, and sleeping around 25 minutes longer than those getting lower grades. [9] Interesting, right? (Correlation is not causation though.)

There have been different studies about pushing back starting times of schools. [10] The results are straightforward:

  • Better average grades
  • Less students falling asleep in class
  • Less likely depressed students
  • Students sleep longer
  • Less teenage car accidents
  • Less bullying
  • Less absenteeism

This is clear: Sleep is important for your academic performance.

Ditch All-Nighters for Good

All-nighters are a terrible idea.

Sleep is essential for storing away information that you have encountered during the day. The take-home message is clear: do not skimp on sleep. When you are preparing for an important exam, or interview, you might be tempted to stay up late the night before trying to cram information into your head. Avoid the temptation. It’s a terrible idea and you will be much better off getting an early night. Not only will you be more refreshed when you wake up, you will also be better able to remember what you learnt the day before.Richard Wiseman

Not feeling like pulling all-nighters any more…

Sleep more for Better Physical Performance

Sleep is as important for physical performance as it is for academic performance.

I bet you didn’t know that:

In the Gulf War, one of every four American combat deaths was a result from fire from U.S. forces…. After all digging, one truth stared at them, a conclusion that was as obvious as it was radical: soldiers simply weren’t getting enough sleep. The skills and training built up over hundreds of hours of preparation were lost on the battlefield amid the sleep deprivation of combat.David K. Randall

Sleep deprivation kills in the battlefields…

…and makes you dumb behind the school desk.

Soldiers that consistently averaged the highest amounts of sleep obtained consistently high exam scores, whereas those that averaged low levels of sleep obtained inconsistent performances on the exams.Thomas Balkin, a scientist who’s been working for the military

Inconsistent performances in the battlefield could cost lives. Soldiers need enough sleep to perform exceptional. The same holds true for athletes…

There was a series of studies with high-level athletes. [11] [12]  When the athletes slept 10 hours they improved themselves immensely:

  • Swimmers swam faster with a higher frequency of kicks
  • Tennis players served more accurate
  • And basketball players improved their free throw shooting by almost 10%

(Many of the athletes set new personal bests while taking part in the 10h sleep studies.)

Conclusion: Prioritize sleep for maximum academic and physical performances.

Now that you want to prioritize sleep, think about improving the quality of your sleep by monitoring and analyzing it. Use SleepRate to track your sleep, and to get a personalized assessment & program to bring your sleep to perfection.

This article is a guest post by Jonas Salzgeber and has previously been published on his blog