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Health and Learning: What the Science Says

Health and learning are closely intertwined. As the saying goes, a healthy body means a healthy mind. But what does the empirical evidence have to say? In recent years, new research has come out on how our health can affect our learning. Here’s a few key takeaways.

The Science of Forgetfulness

We all have lapses in memory. Sometimes we forget names, passwords, where we parked our car. But other times our memory is almost photographic. We recall phone numbers, conversations, and the plot of our favorite books. The question, then, is: why the inconsistency? What are the origins of forgetfulness and why does it fluctuate?

One answer comes from neurobiology. As researchers Lars Schwabe and Oliver T. Wolf were able to show, stress plays a significant role in how we remember. In fact, they demonstrate that the presence of stress during the learning process plays a direct role in memory formation. When ascertaining new information under stressful conditions, the ability to recall this information was later observed to be rather subpar.

But wait, can’t stress boost learning and enhance memory?

Of course. However, Schwabe and Wolf argue the kind of stress and the context in which it occurs is critical. When stress and learning are conceptually linked—such as the stress of trying a new sport—our focus and memory spike. But when stress and learning are experienced as separate and unrelated phenomena, memory can be significantly impaired. For example, learning a language when you know your parking meter has just expired.

The Power of a Full Sleep Cycle

Many of us have heard how beneficial a healthy sleep schedule is for our physical and mental health, as well as our capabilities as a lifelong learner. But this kind of advice is rarely elaborated on. What kind of sleep is best for boosting our health and improving our lives?

Psychologists Penelope A. Lewis, Günther Knoblich, and Gina Poe have shed light on this via recent research on the relationship between learning and sleep. To make a long story short, their findings suggest that different forms of mental problem-solving that occur in waking life are linked to different sleep stages.

In particular, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep versus non-rapid eye movement sleep—two distinct phases of our nightly sleep cycle—are said to assist in very different forms of brain activity. The former has been linked to boosted creativity, or the ability to build novel associations between ideas, whereas the latter has been linked to what’s called “gist abstraction,” or the ability to recode memories in a way that assist in comprehension and pattern-detection.

Most importantly, though, their findings indicate how crucial each stage is for healthy cognition. They suggest that it is only when the two sleep stages are working together that our learning is functioning at full capacity. For lifelong learners, then, the lesson here is about the important of the entire sleep cycle. While any amount of sleep is good for us, the evidence suggests that experiencing each stage of sleep—from REM to non-REM—is crucial for a healthy mind.

The Mindful Mind

You’ve probably heard it a hundred times now: mindfulness can do it all. As a wellness practice, it offers a myriad of physical and mental benefits. As a learning strategy, it can boost performance and strengthen focus. But what’s really going on?

As education scholar Kimberley Holmes asserts, mindfulness is far more than a passing fad. It is a legitimate practice for supporting one’s growth—be it personal, professional, or pedagogical. Through a survey of research studies, Holmes demonstrates the powerful role mindfulness can play in boosting neural plasticity, or the mental flexibility required to learn new skills and information.

What’s more, she advocates for mindfulness as a key teaching tool in all educational environments. More specifically, she calls for greater use of “contemplative neuroscience,” a set of mindful techniques designed to calm stress, increase focus, establish a mind-body connection, reduce bias, and orient learners toward their personalized learning goals.

At this point, Holmes argues, the verdict on mindfulness is clear: its benefits as a tool for emotional clarity and cognitive performance are unparalleled. The question all lifelong learners must ask, then, is whether they will take the leap and begin incorporating it into their own lives.

The Tip of the Iceberg

There’s an tremendous amount of work being done by top researchers across the world, and so much of it can improve how we learn and care for ourselves. But it’s often crowded out by all the online noise. That’s why it’s important to curate what one consumes and declutter one’s digital space.

It’s also why finding a couple trustworthy sources, like Mission to Learn, is so important. If this sort of exploration of cutting-edge research is something you want to see more of, leave a comment below!

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