Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How sleep effects your guitar learning

Musicians have long been thought of as night owls. We imagine jazz musicians playing in New York style basements and rock musicians playing pubs till the early hours.  Almost all live work will be in a night time venue. A musician looking for a career in music with no late nights is probably a teacher. Late nights are not really a problem providing you are not trying to live a double life. In other words combining the musician hours with a 9 to 5 job. I have met far too many guitarists who live such lives including myself at times but the research shows that if you are serious about improving your guitar playing cutting back on sleep is not a good option.

Late night guitar practice

Sleep deprivation and it's effects is described in detail on the Wikipedia page if you are interested but what I am concerned about is how it effects learning guitar. It's easy to fall in the habit of practicing late at night. At first your practice sessions are short so it's no big deal but as you get more in to practicing the nights get later but unfortunately your school or work still begins at the same time the next morning. As a result you cut back on sleep. In the day you feel drowsy but come the evening you get your second wind and kick on in to the early hours. You may feel okay generally but the question is how is your lack of sleep effecting your brain's ability to learn.

Less than 7 hours and performance begins to drop

In recent years thanks to Functional MRI scanning researchers have been able to observe how well our brain learns in all sorts of situations. Learning on less than the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep shows a rapid decline in the brains ability to learn. If for example you sleep only 6 hours a night you can expect an obvious drop in performance. You may not even notice it but your mind will drift sooner.

3 Steps to learning

There is basically a 3 step process to learning new material. 1. Acquisition 2. Consolidation 3. Recall. Each step is vital and each is affected by how much sleep you have had. A lack of sleep will cause a decline in your brains ability to function during all three step. If we lack sleep while trying learn new material (acquisition) our brain is unable to focus. To give you an idea here is a quote from a sleep study report I read recently - 'The arithmetic task led to significantly decreased activation in the bilateral prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes.' When we are low on actual sleep our brains seems to be asleep on the job.

Consolidation and recall

Consolidating happens during sleep. Researchers know that sleep is a critical time for processing what we have learned throughout our waking hours. Our brain seems to sort, organize and perhaps even delete the new information. The exact process is still unclear but what is certain is that a lack of sleep will affect the consolidation stage. Lastly recall as it suggests is your ability to access the information in your brain. We all know what it feels like late at night when we are tired and are trying to remember something we had to do.

Try practicing in the morning - You may be surprised

If you are learning guitar it is best to do less practice at a time when you are most alert. It's fine to jam and play around late into the evening but if you want to get the most out of your practice for the least amount of time invested (most bang for your buck) aim for mornings or at least a time when you are fresh and alert. The following article may be helpful if you want to know more. Sleep, Learning and Memory.

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