Practice Results Most Obvious AFTER Sleep


It’s not breaking new ground to say that sleep is important.

But as we move from the end of the spring semester into summer, and as we slowly transition from our pandemic routines into whatever our new “normal” is, it’s worth keeping in mind the importance of sleep not only for health, but for learning.

The Importance of Sleep

While practicing is important – (even just a little bit), some studies are showing that the full potential of practice isn’t unlocked until our brain has a chance to assimilate this new information. And our brain does most of this digesting during sleep.

This is the topic of a research paper titled Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning. From the abstract:

Improvement in motor skill performance is known to continue for at least 24 hours following training, yet the relative contributions of time spent awake and asleep are unknown. Here we provide evidence that a night of sleep results in a 20% increase in motor speed without loss of accuracy, while an equivalent period of time during wake provides no significant benefit. Furthermore, a significant correlation exists between the improved performance overnight and the amount of stage 2 NREM sleep, particularly late in the night.

From: Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect (https://www.cell.com/neuron/pdf/S0896-6273(02)00746-8.pdf)

The study looks at the effect that sleep can have on the speed and accuracy of a motor skill task. After learning a basic motor skill task that tested both speed and accuracy, subjects were retested twice at 12-hour intervals. Subjects showed little improvement between the two tests that did not have a sleep break, but significant improvement on the test immediately following a sleep break. Additionally, the kind of sleep that leads to improvement seems to matter, with more Stage 2 NREM sleep that happens in the last 25% of sleep time showing a positive correlation with improvement in the motor skill task.

Read the whole paper for yourself here. It’s pretty easy to understand that basics of it, and looking at the charts showing the relative improvement after sleep may give you some ideas on how best to optimize the learning of any sort of motor skill – whether it’s music, sport, or any sort of artistic control.

This Book Will Put You To Sleep

If you want more information about the importance of sleep, one of the authors of this study – Matthew Walker – has a great book on sleep called Why We Sleep. This was one of the many books I’ve read over the pandemic, and it is one that has changed my sleep habits the most. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in sleep, science, or just general self-improvement!


About Colin Dorman

Colin is a freelance horn player and teacher, as well as a fan of tech of all sorts, aviation, and increasingly complex flight simulators. He also enjoys beer, bourbon and fitness - but not at the same time. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, as well as right here at ColinDorman.com!