November 1, 2011

    How do you learn faster?

    We all want to learn faster, as well as have our athletes, kids, or employees learn faster. There are few situations more frustrating than having to explain something a second time. As hard working Americans, the need to push harder and more frequently is rampant in our schools, weight rooms, and sporting showcases. Hard work builds mental toughness and physical resilience, so there needs to be focused and efficient periods of intense training, but what if these commitments were actually jeopardizing our ability to learn?

    For example, there are thousands of athletes, parents, and coaches who want to improve reaction time but sacrifice rest to do so. However, even 6 hours of sleep can reduce reaction time by 32%! This effect of sleep on reaction time skill is usually measured by more general tasks, like a finger tapping test, which evaluates a subject’s ability to tap a desk with their finger or touch a screen as quickly as possible. These tests, and motor skills in general, have been proven to improve with overnight sleep due to the reorganizing of new information in the brain to make it more readily available (see Sparta Point 9/8/10). This process during sleep is one of 2 general forms of memory consolidation, the processes that stabilize skills after their initial acquisition.

    This initial acquisition occurs on a smaller level, the synapse. The synapse is the connection between neurons, and this consolidation occurs in just minutes to hours after a skill, as opposed to the overnight system consolidation that occurs in sleep. As previously discussed, dietary flavonoids, or the nutrients in food, have beneficial effects on this synaptic process. Specifically, it was found that these dietary-derived flavonoids, higher in vegetables than any other food, protect and help regenerate neurons.

    The next question is always the same; how much sleep and vegetables do I need then to maximize learning? Well, Cheri Mah, a athlete sleep specialist at the Stanford Sleep Lab, collaborates with Sparta and has found a range of 9 ¼ to 9 ¾ hours for the average requirements among athletes. If you are not getting that rest, you’re likely accumulating sleep debt, which will eventually need to be paid back in more sleep for optimal performance (see Sparta Point 3/17/10).

    However, there are solutions for those of us with schedules that prevent more than 9 hours. A recent 2011 study out of the University of Pisa in Italy found increases in motor memory consolidation from short naps (1).

    We train NO PROFESSIONAL athletes more than once a day for 4 days a week, suggesting they use that extra time for sleeping and eating at least 8 servings of fresh vegetables. So my next question is; how willing are you to trust your sleep and diet over just more sweat and effort?


    Debarnot, Ursula et al. “Daytime naps improve motor imagery learning.” Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience vol. 11,4 (2011): 541-50. doi:10.3758/s13415-011-0052-z

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