During my many college years I often felt overloaded with information. After enduring long days filled with lectures on everything from business to neuroscience I felt that my brain could not take in one more bit of information. I eventually discovered that I could go the distance after a good night's sleep. I used this strategy for exam cramming as well with good success. While many of my cohorts were up late burning the midnight oil attempting to cram in as much information as their neurons could hold I was sleeping peacefully. I would awake early and continue my studying refreshed.
Now new research on neuroplasticity from the University of Wisconsin Madison has shown that sleep indeed plays an important physiological role in learning. Learning is all about the strength of the connections between nerve cells called neurons. In order for these connections to become strong there must be some downtime to allow the brain to "reset" if you will.
Older theories posit that the brain continues to learn during sleep--the neural connections become stronger. The new research indicates that no learning occurs during sleep but neurons need some downtime in order to "recharge." Without sleep the brain reaches a saturation point and cannot process information effeciently.
So beware the next time you put off studying for that exam until the last minute and plan on staying up all night.