By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.
Let’s say there are two piano players, Jim and Bob. In their individual lessons their instructor, Leslie, tells them a position is opening up in their city’s orchestra. Who gets it will be based on 5 songs they must play before judges. She gives them the sheet music for the competition and sends them on their way.
At this moment they are equal in skill and ability and neither Jim nor Bob has ever practiced the songs they are given. They dive with equal fervor into their preparation. Unknowingly, both adopt the same training regimen and practice an equal amount of time. However, this is where their similarities end. Jim and Bob are two very different people in one key area. Jim has always been very disciplined about going to bed early and insuring that he gets 8 hrs of sleep. Bob is a night owl and stays up late watching TV and reading books. He usually gets 5 hrs of sleep each night.
However, if Jim and Bob’s training methods and length of training are exactly the same why is it more likely that Jim would perform better at the competition than Bob?
According to, “Your Brain: The Missing Manual,” Bob is missing out on a precious benefit gained during sleep that would boost his piano playing ability. That precious gift is the brain reviewing the previous day’s activities and increasing the ability for Bob to perform those actions better the next time he tries them.
As we practice any activity neural pathways are created that help the brain to remember how to perform the action at a later date. Each time we perform a particular task the pathways become a stronger series of networks that can help us get the job done. This apparently happens even when we’re sleeping.
So by sleeping three more hours Bob would perform just as well as Jim?
But there’s a catch to improving performance by sleeping. It has to occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. That is one of four stages of sleep we cycle through throughout the night. It is also the deepest level of sleep. If Bob does not cycle through the REM stages then he can’t reap the benefits.
The author of “Your Brain,’ Matthew MacDonald, cites two studies, one involving rats and the other humans that demonstrate the effectiveness of REM sleep in improving our ability to conduct tasks we perform during the day. In a study (2001), rats who had “electrodes implanted” in their brains were sent through a series of mazes. Their neuronal activity was “recorded.” When the rats later fell into REM sleep those same neurons fired in the same way as if they were running the mazes.
Another experiment, conducted by Robert Strickgold (Harvard Medical School) in 2000, was where human subjects were asked to play Tetris for 7 hours a day. Participants were observed while sleeping and awakened during their REM cycles. Many of the test subjects were indeed dreaming of playing Tetris (17 of 27). MacDonald goes on to say that in these types of studies, subjects who are prevented from going into REM sleep do not perform as well as others who are allowed REM sleep when learning “new tasks.”
Sometimes succeeding in something boils down to small advantages. We can only practice for so long or in so many ways. If I can gain an edge through a relaxing deep sleep, someone please, hand me a pillow.
Find out 101 more ways you can ‘beat the competition’ 🙂 in Dr. Akil’s groundbreaking new book SUPER YOU! 101 Ways to Maximize your Potential on Amazon or Lulu. You can also download a free chapter on your Kindle or iPhone at Amazon.