Sleeping Your Way to a Better Memory
Sleep: It Does a Memory Good
Posted June 4, 2008
Marathon runners would never starve themselves before a race, a time when they need all the energy reserves they can get, yet that's the equivalent of what most of us do by cutting back on sleep when we have a big deadline approaching. We all know the benefits of a good night's sleep, even if we're not currently experiencing them. You feel more energized, your mood is improved, and you can think more quickly and clearly, leading to better performance both on the job and at home.
Our memories may be one of the most significant victims of sleep deprivation, making it even more ironic that at the times we need our memories the most, we choose to forgo sleep. Recent studies have shown that not only do we learn new information better when we aren't sleep deprived, but sleep also stabilizes our recent memories making them more resistant to forgetting and interference . Our memories may be reactivated and reorganized while we sleep, allowing us to be more efficient at learning and remembering the next day.
I discussed these research findings with my students, the optimistic (read: unrealistic) part of me hoping that they'd rush back to their dorms to sleep. "But, wait," one of them said, a bit hesitantly, "If we have a lot of stuff to study, wouldn't it be better to study it all and not get any sleep than to get a full night's sleep but not study it?" Chagrined, I had to admit he had a point. If you're way behind on your work, there may be times when you'd be better served completing it in a sleep-deprived state than not working on it all.
The rest of the time (and hopefully that's the majority of your time), we should put more emphasis on a getting a solid night's sleep. As much as we treasure our memories and they provide us with a sense of identity and purpose in life, we should do our best to sleep well and preserve our daily memories as best we can. Maybe with better and more efficient memories, we'd be less likely to find ourselves behind in our work.