Sleep and Your Memory – How a Good Recollection Relies on a Good Night’s Sleep

From Your Mattress to Your Memory

We’ve all pulled an all-nighter at some point in our lifetimes, especially if we’ve been to college or work unusual hours. There comes a point where going to sleep just seems a little futile, so instead we grab a cold shower and a cup of coffee, and just plow on through. However, skipping sleep doesn’t really do you or your mental prowess a lot of favors. Whenever you feel tired and sleep deprived, you find it harder to focus, to react and, crucially, to remember things. You’re more likely to forget important information when you’ve not slept very well or slept at all, and this is because there are essential links between your mental prowess and your sleeping behaviors.

For instance, we already know that when you go to sleep, your brain uses it as an opportunity to reorder and codify new information acquired during your waking hours. We see it every night as we dream.

While the mechanics behind dreams and the purposes they serve are still poorly understood, scientists and doctors have strong reasons to believe that they’re essential for the acquisition and retention of experiences and information. Put crudely, dreams may simply be the result of the brain reorganizing your neural pathways and strengthening connections to process what it’s learned. During this process, it retains important information while discarding unimportant information. Mundane details such as your commute to work will be less likely to be kept than the learning of a new skill or an especially noteworthy experience. Functionally, you could think of it like defragging an old hard drive. So when you deny your brain this opportunity, it should come as no surprise to find that your thoughts are cluttered.

“I’d Better Sleep On It”

Before undertaking any learning, it’s a good idea to get a good night’s sleep so you can come into it fresh, and refreshed. While forcing yourself to stay up late the day before an exam is the time-honored college tradition, the truth is there’s a reason we only burn candles at the one end. Taking the time to sleep allows the brain to prepare itself to receive and catalog new information, and studies show that being well-rested correlates positively with memory retention and learning, while conversely being tired makes learning slower.

Skill retention can be held back by as much as 40% if you haven’t slept properly.

There are ultimately three processes behind your memories:

Acquisition – the act of experiencing or learning something new, which forms the initial memory.

Consolidation – in which the memory is codified and retained within the brain, allowing it survive on a longer basis.

Recall – the capacity to bring up that memory in future while retaining its clarity.

The acquisition and recollection of memory is a conscious effort but consolidation, on the other hand, only occurs during rest. No matter the type of memory, it will be harder to retain if you do not get enough sleep as your brain will have little opportunity to cement it, resulting in half-remembered or lost information. However, the process is still very puzzling. Despite being associated with a specific period of sleep – the rapid eye movement (REM) stage – there does not seem to be any detrimental effect if the patient is under an effect in which REM is suppressed. In these cases, memory retention goes on as normal. Scientists are still trying to work out why this is, and unlocking the mystery may help us further understand the mechanics behind sleep and how the brain operates.

Not only does sleeping benefit memory retention, but it’s also useful for retaining motor-skills and coordination for physical tasks as well. During one test, subjects were made to sleep or nap after performing a task such as playing the piano or playing football. In the majority of cases, sleeping was found to have benefitted the subjects in retaining what they had learned on the topic.

Practical Applications

It’s clearly advisable to students then that they get a good night’s sleep before undertaking any academic tasks. Whenever studying, always try to do it while still awake and refreshed, and always try to ensure that you get a good seven-and-a-half to eight hours sleep the night before. This should help you retain more and more of what you learn beforehand. Further getting plenty of rest before an exam will make it easier to recall important information during the process.

Unfortunately, as we get older, the periods of sleep in which memory retention is undertaken gets gradually shorter. By the mid-30s people will already start finding it harder to retain memories. Furthermore, as we get older it frequently seems harder and harder to get the sleep we need. But there are a number of ways you can improve not just the quantity, but the quality of your sleep.

Improving Your Sleep Hygiene

Sleep is a lifestyle habit, and you need to treat it that way. Sleep and wake at the same time each day, and avoid too much activity or bright screens directly before bedtime. While it might seem like a good idea to wear yourself out, more often than not, you’re only keeping yourself awake longer. Make sure you’re not drinking caffeine after lunch — you’d be surprised how long the effects can linger.

Ask yourself if your sleep environment is really conducive to sleep. Try to keep it free of electronics or other distractions. If you find yourself getting up to check the thermostat, consider also using more or less bedding. You can use curtains and white-noise machines to counter any outside interference, as well.

Lastly, don’t forget the bed you sleep on. If you don’t know when the mattress was last replaced, it’s probably been too long. If you wake up feeling sore every morning, a lumpy old spring mattress could be the culprit. A new premium foam mattress might be all you need to get your sleep back in hand.