Motor learning is not teaching your car its ABCs or how to do division, it is the process of learning new physical skills and reflexes. More technically it can be considered “a change, resulting from practice or a novel experience, in the capability for responding. It often involves improving the smoothness and accuracy of movements and is obviously necessary for complicated movements such as speaking, playing the piano, and climbing trees; but it is also important for calibrating simple movements like reflexes, as parameters of the body and environment change over time.”
The importance of motor learning
It can be seen as being fundamental to your life, the better your motor learning the better you are able to learn a huge variety of different things that will not only enrich your life but will also prolong it. Just imagine how dangerous it would be if you were not able to learn how to drive properly? Imagine if you had to concentrate on the process of changing gears as much as you did the first time you tried it every time you drove? It would make the entire process far more risky. Motor learning is one of those rarely discussed yet incredibly important aspects of life, it is generally when there is an issue with motor learning that people take notice of it but the reality is that there are things that we can all do to improve our motor learning no matter how good it already is.
The importance of sleep.
Take sleep. Yes, good old sleep. We are obviously a sleep-focused business and this means that whenever we read or hear about how sleep can improve lives we want to pass that information on. Sleep has gone from being seen as a way of simply ‘recharging the batteries’ to having a fundamental role in the overall physical and psychological health and wellbeing of everyone. It is much more than just restoring energy levels, it plays a role in so many aspects of our lives, from regulating our appetite to helping us heal, from balancing our emotions to cleaning out our brains. There can be no denying the importance of sleep in virtually every aspect of our lives so it comes as no major surprise to us that sleep is also important for motor learning.
Sleep your way to better motor learning
In fact, sleep has been shown to be vital to memory recall so this connection would seem even more relevant. Most people will have an anecdotal understanding that it is harder to learn something when they are tired but this is not what science is built on. To really understand the connections between the outcome and the process need to be found and examined, the big questions of how and why need to be answered. Finally it seems that a team of neuroscientists at the University of Montreal have finally found that connection.
The connection between motor learning and sleep.
There are a number of brain components that are situated beneath the cortex that play a role in motor learning. The cortex is what people usually think of as the brain, the big grey mass of folded material. However, while this is a massive part (both physically and cognitively) it is not the only brain component. We all have a number of others that lie below this and they aid us in learning new movements and reflexes. They also work better after we have had a good night’s sleep. The University of Montreal study explains that motor learning is associated with the region called the striatum which is found deep down in the brain. To best learn motor skills there must be good communication between the striatum and all the other subcortical regions. Sleep is essential in this communication. Karen Debas, the study's lead author, explains that “When consolidation level is measured after a period of sleep, the brain network of these areas functions with greater synchrony, that is, we observe that communication between the various regions of this network is better optimized. The opposite is true when there has been no period of sleep.”
The study explains that they “directly compared changes in connectivity before and after sleep or the simple passage of daytime. As predicted, the results revealed greater integration within the cortico-striatal network after sleep, but not an equivalent daytime period. Importantly, a similar pattern of results was also observed using a data-driven approach; the increase in integration being specific to a cortico-striatal network, but not to other known functional networks. These findings reveal, for the first time, a new signature of motor sequence consolidation: a greater between-regions interaction within the cortico-striatal system.”
How can we use this information
So what does this mean for us? Well it is quite simple, if you are trying to learn any physically related skill, be it playing a piano or kicking a football then the best thing you can do is sleep more. This is the reason that more and more professional sports teams are actually cutting down the number of hours their players train as they have realised that it is far better for them to be well rested than it is for them to spend hours out training. The reality is that you need to ensure that you are sleeping enough each night as this is the best way to optimise the time you spend practicing anything and everything. As a beneficial side effect, sleeping well will not only help you learn how to juggle or do card tricks but it will also mean that you are a happier and healthier individual who will not only wake each day feeling much better but could also live longer.
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