The European Historical Combat Guild

Investigating Europe's Historical combative methods and behaviours

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Learning while you sleep....

I have known for some time that the process of acquiring a new skill is a process of mapping it in to your nervous system, forming and strengthening the connections between the nerves, in the brain and to the muscles that make the action happen. I also knew that part of the efficiency of the nerves function is based upon the proteins that form the "insulation" to the nerves that insure that the signals the signals through the nerves are stronger and faster.
What I had not realised or thoroughly considered was the importance of sleep to this process. Research has shown that it is during sleep that this mapping takes place and when the proteins are produced.

From Stages of Motor learning (2005) Andreas R. Luft and  Manueel M. Buitrago
Successful learning of motor skill requires repetitive training... This article covers the growing evidence that motor skill learning advances through stages, in which different storage mechanisms predominate. the acquisitions phase is characterised by fast (within session) and slow learning (between sessions). For a short period following the initial training sessions, the skill is liable to interference by other skills and by protein synthesis inhibition, indicating that consolidation processes occur during rest periods between training sessions.

When you are practising a skill to acquire it your brain will be trying out different things to ascertain the best way to do them. As it finds things that work it then refines them. However to make lasting changes takes time and happens through a process know as Consolidation. Consolidation is taking place at all time, but appears to be most effective during sleep.

It's Practice, with Sleep, That Makes Perfect: Implications of Sleep-Depnedant Learning and Plasticity for Skill Performance. (2005) Matthew P. Walker and Robert Strickgold
Practice is often believed to be the only determinate of improvement. Although repeatedly performing a new task often results in learning benefits, leading to the adage "practice makes perfect", a collection of studies over the past decade has begun to change this concept, Instead, these reports suggest that after initial training, the brain continues to learn in the absence of further practice, and that this delayed improvement develops during sleep.

The study concludes;

Although the functions of the sleeping brain remain uncertain, rapidly increasing literature now supports the role of sleep in modifying and improving memory  These reports provide an abundance of converging evidence indicating that sleep dependant mechanisms of neural plasticity lead to skill memory consolidation and consequently to delayed performance improvements. Different forms of simple and complex skill memory appear to require subtly different types of sleep for overnight memory enhancement, and several studies indicate that within the first 24 hours following initial practice is essential for consolidation to develop.

More recent research suggests that for greatest effect one should sleep, even just a power nap, within four hours of practice, otherwise the body/brains ability to consolidate is impaired. It would seem in light of this that evening training sessions, if you then get to bed within four hours of finishing, is actually a good idea! ;)

Interference occurs when one doesn't sleep properly or within the suggested time, and the consolidation is inhibited has the brain is having to deal with more present issues, also as noted the production of the proteins involved takes place during sleep. Also if you practice or use another similar but conflicting skill soon after training it causes Interference of the consolidation process. It seems that four hours is the boundary line after which such practice won't cause Interference. If you can wait four hours until using the conflicting skill, then interference doesn't occur and if you can get a nap as well..... so much the better! ;)
It should also be noted that once a skill has been acquired then both skills can used and practised with less or no effect


  1. Agree with you, developing skills is very important.

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