Element 29:

Sleep – the Most Powerful Incubation Phase of Learning

“It is during sleep that our brain’s chemical environment provides the greatest opportunity for memory consolidation and creativity to take place.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

womanasleep[1]When you are wrestling with a difficult problem or trying to understand a new concept, and a friend urges you to “sleep on it,” there is a lot of wisdom in those words. Sleep is the longest and most powerful incubation phase in our 24-hour day. It is during sleep that your brain’s chemical environment provides the greatest opportunity for memory consolidation and creativity to take place. While waking slow-wave alpha, theta, and delta incubation phases allow learning to gain some level of permanence and durability (see “The Incubation Stage of Learning“), these waking states are not nearly enough to ensure information will gain firm stability in your long-term memory banks. In order for learning to gain permanence you must enter the most powerful incubation phase of all – sleep.

Sleep is not one constant state, but, just as when you are awake, the brain cycles in and out of different brain rhythms. Neuroscientists have identified five stages of sleep: four of widespread, slow, and synchronized alpha, theta, delta 1 and delta 2 sleep stages; and, fifth, a fast and desynchronized wave form called REM. We fall asleep in stair-step fashion, descending the first four stages from fastest to slowest wave, then ascending them until we reach desynchronized REM sleep, which is so unlike the first four stages that it is also called paradoxical sleep. During a typical eight-hour night, we cycle through all these stages four to five times. Sleep is a super-incubation period and much more potent for learning and creativity than our waking incubation stage because of three main factors: (1) longer and (2) more widespread short-wave periods; and (3) the brain is allowed to drop into the fascinating stage of sleep called REM.

Read on to learn more about sleep, the most powerful incubation phase

Each Sleep State Has a Specific Learning Function

Over the last five years, research into the different sleep states has exploded. One of the results of this research is the discovery that, while all stages of sleep help consolidate information into long-term memory, each state may have its own specific kinds of information which it is best at establishing. The initial research indicates that slow-wave sleep states are best at consolidating episodic, spatial, and verbal memories, while the stage of desynchronized, fast-wave sleep called REM is best at solidifying emotional and procedural memories (the encoding of skills like golf, swimming and typing).

headcolorrays[1]When we sleep we spend longer amounts of time in short-wave brain states than we do when we are awake. In a typical sleep cycle of 8 hours, we average 6-½ hours in the chemical stew that produces slow, synchronized alpha, theta, and delta wave forms. These slow-wave states represent the chemical combinations that allow information in working memory to be passed to our long-term memory banks (see “The Incubation Stage of Learning“). While waking slow-wave states do indeed give meaningful information some resilience, in most cases they are not long enough to ensure that new information will be firmly and forever consolidated into our long-term memory banks.

The neuroscientific term “memory consolidation” refers to the process whereby a memory becomes resilient and therefore resistant to interference from competing and disrupting factors. Without a full night’s sleep, when your brain is exposed to much longer slow-wave, alpha, theta, and delta states, it is very easy for information we learned during the day to degenerate. We have all experienced forgetting things we needed to remember because we failed to get a good night’s sleep.

Slow-wave sleep states provide another benefit. It is believed that they support the distribution of large amounts of information into widespread areas of our long-term memory banks. While awake, only localized sections of your brain drop into slow-wave states, while the rest of the brain maintains in active beta wave forms as discussed in the book Cracking the Learning Code and future newsletters, it is believed that when we are awake only those specific areas of our long-term memory banks where the slow-wave spindles occur are receiving information from working memory. In slow-wave sleep, alpha, theta, and delta wave forms dominate the whole brain. Research conclusively shows that if slow-wave sleep states are compromised in any way, learning and creativity are compromised.

REM: The Chaotic Wave State of Incubation

The phase of incubation called REM is a relatively new discovery. Until the middle of the 20th century, grand names in science and psychology like Ivan Pavlov believed that, like the lights at bedtime, our brains shut off during sleep and that we were truly dead to the world. Well, they had it partially right, we were dead to the world, but only the outside world.

girlasleepwhite[1]In 1953 in a sleep lab in Chicago, Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman conducted a series of experiments that stunned the scientific world. These two enterprising researchers discovered a unique phenomenon in their sleeping subjects: Under closed lids at certain times during the night, their eyes would move back and forth at incredibly high rates of speed as if the individuals were engaging in some sort of wild physical activity or watching a hyper-fast tennis match. Yet during this phase of sleep the subjects’ bodies remained in a state of motionless passivity. What Aserinsky and Kleitman discovered eventually became known as rapid eye movement sleep, or REM.

Later, when researchers measured the brain waves (EEGs) of subjects in REM sleep, they found a curious contradiction. While the body was completely immobile, the brain was producing unsynchronized, high-frequency, low-amplitude waves that could be 200 percent or more vigorous than those seen in active beta waking states. In active waking beta states, the brain’s unsynchronized wave activity ranges from 8 to 30 cycles a second, while in REM sleep the range accelerates to 90 hertz and beyond. In fact, during certain periods of REM sleep, storms of neural activity sweep through the brain that are so intense they resemble mini-epileptic seizures. To support this enhanced neural activity, it has been found that the blood flow in the brain stem increases by 47 percent and in the cortex by 41 percent. Dr. E. Clark was one of the first neuroscientific pioneers to discover this increased blood flow in REM sleep, when during an operation he noted the brain of a sleeping patient became so engorged with blood that it protruded out of the patient’s opened skull casing! No, the mind is not off in REM sleep, but instead literally trillions upon trillions of neural connections are being activated to such an intense level that it looks like all heck is breaking loose.

REM research over last two decades has revealed a clearer understanding of what is happening at the neurochemical level to cause this chaotic frenzy of unsynchronized REM brain wave activity. During REM sleep, the spigots that allow the monoamines serotonin and norepinephrine to flow are virtually shut off, while the spigots that provide acetylcholine (ACH) to the brain are turned to high and flowing like a river. Because the neurotransmitters of the aminergic system act as modulators controlling the way other neurons fire (see “Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning“), with these monoamines virtually shut off and ACH flooding the brain, there is little constraint on the “neural lightning” effect of ACH.

The effect on neurons when the monoamines are cut off is kind of like the effect on a classroom full of pent-up third graders when the teacher leaves the room – unrestricted cross talk breaks out. In slow-wave alpha, theta, and delta waking and sleeping states, the monoamines reduce but still exert some control on neural firing, which is what helps support slow, organized, and synchronized wave forms. But in REM sleep, with the serotonin and norepinephrine spigots off, chaotic and unsynchronized neural wave activity ensues.

Research now demonstrates that, if you fail to let your brain enter this important chaotic ACH dominant sleep state, your procedural memories will fail to be consolidated, your emotional maturation will be retarded, and the fountainhead for your most creative thoughts will be impeded from flowing. Any learning institution or individual that desires to create profound learning and creativity must have a firm understanding of the dramatic impact that slow-wave and REM sleep have on the memory formation process.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

Why, when you fail to enter all the stages of sleep, you not only forget much of what you want to remember but also become much less creative.

How REM sleep allows your brain to reorganize itself.

How REM sleep produces “aha” and “eureka” moments.

Why REM sleep is considered to be our most creative brain state, because more random hyper-neural associations can be made in this state than in any other.

How the hippocampus, which is instrumental in transferring working memory into long-term memory, literally replays the important events of your day during REM sleep.

Why fish and reptiles never enter REM stage sleep.

What your ears do in REM sleep.

What stages of sleep you sleepwalk in.

Why you resemble a person in a coma when you are in REM sleep.

Why your sex organs don’t follow your “comatose” body when you enter REM sleep.

Why you lose the ability to regulate body temperature in REM sleep.

How your ability to ride a bike, play golf, type, or play a musical instrument increases after REM sleep.

How emotional learning takes place during REM sleep.

How the more intense your emotional episodes when you’re awake, the more intense your REM sleep.

How REM sleep allows your brain to reach higher-ordered mental states.

How REM sleeps allows you to replenish the important neurochemicals you need to focus on meaningful stimuli when you are awake.


How dreams are produced in REM sleep.

Why “Dreaming is not like a delirium, it is a delirium.”

How REM sleep forces your brain to hallucinate.

Why psychotic and schizophrenic patients and users of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD experience wild REM-like dreams while they are wide awake.

Why, if you have up to 30 dreams each night, you remember so few of them!

Why the one dream you are most apt to remember is the one you are having just before you awake in the morning.


How drugs, alcohol, and stress can hinder your capacity to fall into REM sleep.

Why, like the characters on the TV show, Arrested Development, individuals experiencing extended periods of REM deprivation from drugs, alcohol and stress can end up emotionally retarded.

Why a drug addict or alcoholic’s emotional development may stop the day he starts heavily indulging in his drug of choice.

How alcohol inhibits the action at specific receptor sites that must be stimulated in order for learning to take place.

How alcoholic delusions, like pink elephants and snakes climbing out of keyholes, are caused by missing REM stage sleep.

How, by blocking action at special receptor sites, alcohol can cause you to experience “blackouts.”

How drugs and alcohol not only disrupt incubation states when we are asleep but when we are awake also.


Why premature babies spend more time in REM sleep.

How, if a child misses REM sleep, his windows of super learning opportunity will fail to open effectively.

Why adults need less slow-wave and REM sleep than children.

Why today’s media-savvy children experience so few “sweet dreams.”

Why it is impossible to punish or bribe a teenager to go to sleep early.

How the early start times at junior and high schools may be inhibiting the very short-wave and REM cycles teens so desperately need to ensure efficient academic and emotional learning.

Why trying to catch up on memory consolidation by sleeping longer after you have experienced a period of sleep deprivation is not a good idea.

Why, for efficient learning and memory to occur, you do not want to wake up before your last, longest, and possibly most important REM stage is complete.

Why learners who cut short their sleep for as little as two hours a night are not able to remember as well as those who got a full night’s sleep.


That we live in a culture of sleep and relaxation deprivation.

How organizations that push their charges too hard and limit time for the brain to drop into the incubation phase of learning not only dumb down the individual but the whole institution.

That a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that medical interns who work more than 80 hours a week make 36 percent more mistakes than their more rested colleagues.

How the medical community, which is very aware of this research, still clings to the idea that an 80-hour work week is the best way for interns to learn how to practice medicine!

That the culture of exhaustion that permeates the medical community is one reason each year hospitals make over 500,000 critical medical errors and why 30 percent of patients in hospitals are there because of misdiagnoses or medical mistakes.

How sleep and relaxation deprivation can be linked to many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest disasters.

To help you understand more about sleep as the most powerful incubation stage of learning, click on other Elements:

The Environment Is Everything to Increasing Your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor

Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time

Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning

The Incubation Stage of Learning

The Grinches Who Stole Experience From Our Learning Institutions

Stress – the Death of Learning