"Woman Listening through Headphones" by Kashirin Nickolai / Wikimedia Commons  / CC BY 2.0
Source: "Woman Listening through Headphones" by Kashirin Nickolai / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

T. S. Eliot famously wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” and most college students that I know would agree with him.  While Eliot’s basis for declaring April cruel has to do with the metaphysical implications of life co-mingling with death, however, a college student’s reasons for thinking April cruel are considerably less philosophical, and a good deal more practical, than those described by the poet of “The Wasteland.”  For the typical college student, April is cruel for one primary reason: final exam week, seven days of mental heavy-lifting punctuated by occasional bouts of nervous anticipation.

As unpleasant as the stress and hard labor of this cruel period inevitably are, the unpleasantness is exacerbated by another common feature of college life: sleep deprivation.  College students lose sleep for any number of reasons (parties, part-time jobs, late night trips to Waffle House), but most would declare that the number one drain on their sleep time is studying—late evenings in the library, and even all-nighters for those occasions when there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

There’s an irony in all this consumption of midnight oil, of course.  The beneficial role of sleep in memory consolidation is well-documented.  To get the most mileage out of their study time, the best thing college students can do after a bout of studying is get a good night’s sleep in order to consolidate the material they have just processed.  Indeed, colleges and universities are actively encouraging students to incorporate sleep into their study schedule, setting aside sleeping areas, and even installing expensive “sleeping pods,” in libraries and student unions, so students can get some sleep without even having to go back to their dorm rooms.  Despite these efforts, however, students continue to view sleep-deprivation as an inevitable part of college life.

For those students who refuse to abandon the notion that sacrificing sleep is a necessity, or even a virtue, new research offers hope in the form of a middle ground, of sorts.  A recent EEG study at Furman University explored the possibility that non-sleep resting states may facilitate memory consolidation in a manner similar to that experienced in sleep.  Participants listened to a short story, and then either rested with their eyes closed (without sleeping), or played a video game for fifteen minutes, and were then administered a delayed recall test on the content of the story.  As hypothesized, the quiet resters demonstrated better recall of the story than the gamers did.  Significantly, the EEG patterns during this non-sleep period of rest showed striking similarities (an increase in slow oscillatory rhythms and a decrease in alpha rhythms) to those present in sleep.  A report of mental activity during the rest period revealed a decrease in awareness of the external environment, and an increase in “mind-wandering” (thinking about the past and imagining the future), which contrasted with the more task-focused mental state of the participants playing the video game.  Both the EEG results of the quite resters, and their report of mental activity during the rest period, indicated activation of the default mode resting state network, which “includes a number of memory-related brain regions including the hippocampus, parahippocampal cortex, and medial frontal cortex.”  In short, a brief period non-sleep rest produced memory-consolidation benefits similar to those experienced in sleep.

An interesting peripheral finding of the study was that game-playing participants who reported that their minds wandered inwardly, away from the external task at hand, also showed superior recall as compared to the gamers who remained focused on the game.

The finding that quiet rest produces many of the same memory benefits as sleep does not, of course, suggest that sleep is not important, either to college students or anyone else in the general population.  It does, however, suggest that if we happen find ourselves faced with the necessity of processing large quantities of new information, and for whatever reason cannot or simply will not make the time to sleep, we would be well-advised to take periodic fifteen minute breaks to sit quietly and simply let our minds wander wherever they will.  The rest breaks won’t make us any less tired, but they might just get us through that Biology or History exam facing us at 8:00 in the morning.

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