Could sleep be the answer to… learning more effectively?

Lucy Lloyd-Roach Think differently

In our first post on the effects of sleep, we talked about how a lack of sleep and how we approach sleep may help us to stick to our goals. In this post, we examine how sleep may help you learn more effectively. This is key if you’re learning to swim or learning a new stroke, but we can’t help but wonder if it is the same with refining/developing skills too.

As before, please note: our posts are about getting you to ‘think differently’ about your sleep and how this could help you learn more effectively thus saving you time, money and effort when learning /improving a new skill. For ‘how to do it’ we’d say to check out our references, and what the professionals say, in order to work out the best solution for you because everyone is different.

Lucy’s interest in the effects of sleep on learning first started when she read a study a couple of years ago, where a researcher took a group of experienced computer gamers and gave them a new game to play. They played the game until they repeatedly got stuck at the same point. They went to bed and when they woke up in the morning played the game and all got further. The researchers say that this illustrates how sleep helps to make sense of what we have experienced during the day and consolidate learning.

This is further supported a by a finger tapping study. Walker, Brakefield, Morgan et al (2002) had two groups – those that learned the finger tapping sequences in the morning and were tested that evening (i.e. who hadn’t slept since learning it) and those that learned it in the evening and were tested in the morning (had slept). Those that had slept were 20 % faster and 40% more accurate than those that hadn’t slept! I’m sure you’ll agree that is a noticeable difference in the effectiveness of their learning!

As with all things, once you start to become aware of something you look for it. Soon after Lucy read about the first study, anecdotal evidence started to appear from a couple of her swimmers in the learn to swim classes. These swimmers are not at the level where they can practice in between sessions, yet, their swimming had improved from the previous week and usually we would expect to spend sometime during a lesson working on the skills that we had practised in the previous lesson. Strangely enough, when she half-jokingly asked these swimmers ‘did they dream about their swimming this week?’ They said, ‘yes!’ Further adding to her wonder about the role of sleep in learning.

We encourage successful visualisation with these swimmers, as visualisation has been shown to cause mirror neurones to fire as if the person is performing the movement and thus helping them to experience without actually getting wet! Based on the Richard Wiseman experiment we mentioned last week about pre-bedtime visualisation improving goal-orientated behaviour by 10%, we are wondering if their success was aided by the time that they conducted their visualisation (we’ll have to check in with them)!

As you can see, sleep plays a role in making sense of what we’ve learned and retaining the information, but as with last week, sleep deprivation plays a part in how effectively we learn a skill too:

Effect of sleep deprivation How it affects learning to swim
Decreases our concentration span If you can’t concentrate as well during a session, you don’t take the most away from it, it will take longer to learn
Decreases the effectiveness of our short term memory If our short term memory isn’t as efficient, we can’t retain as much information from the session, it then doesn’t get consolidated into our long term memory
Decreases our ability to form long term memories Sleep helps to consolidate learning, and in turn this us to learn new skills, so if you’re not getting enough, the brain struggles to do this
Reliance on use of habits This means the brain goes back to its default because it’s easier. If you’re re-learning a new skill, this may be going back the habit that you’re wishing to correct rather than the new one you want to create

You may be thinking ‘this is all very well, but I would sleep more if my life allowed!’ If you’re struggling to fit enough sleep in at night, in his book, Night School, Richard talks about benefits of different types of naps on learning, ranging from 5-90mins. He cites evidence that a nap between 10-90 minutes will help improve your ability to learn new skills as you enter the stage of sleep that helps you consolidate your learning. So if you’re looking for a good excuse for a siesta, this may be it!

As you can see, examining how you approach your sleep (a free tool), could help you save time, money and effort when you’re learning to swim and improving your skills. It will also most likely have a positive impact upon other areas of your life too. As with our last post, we hope that this helps you to ‘think differently’ about your sleep!


  • Richard Wiseman, Night School – thought provoking book that presents different research studies into what happens when we go to sleep
  • From Jeremy Dean’s PsyBlog – 10 most profound effects of sleep deprivation
  • Walker, M.P, Brakefield, T.,Morgan, A. et al (2002) ‘Practice with sleep makes perfect: Sleep dependent Motor Skill Learning.’ Neuron, 35, 205-211
  • Further reading – for more information on mirror neurons and visualition here is a great blog post: