Ahhh, sleep. Did you know the most enjoyable, relaxing, and positively delicious way to spend eight hours also happens to be one of the best ways to improve your studies?
Sleep Enhances Learning and Memory
Although the specifics of how memory and sleep are precisely connected are still being studied, research has found that different types of information get encoded during different stages of sleep. Procedural memory, or knowing how to do something, is dependent on getting REM sleep. Declarative memory, or knowing what about something, is dependent on non-REM sleep. Other research suggests that the combination of having non-REM sleep to prompt memories, followed by REM sleep to consolidate them, is the key. In either case, losing sleep is believed to harm your ability to form memories, and experiments have shown this to be true.
In one experiment, students were trained on a visual reaction skill game. After training, some of them were allowed to sleep, while others stayed awake for 30 hours straight, before being allowed to sleep normally for the following two nights. Several days later, both groups tried the game again. The group that had slept normally performed significantly better than the group that stayed awake, showing how crucial that first night’s sleep had been in learning the game. Furthermore, after focused learning, researchers have observed more activity in certain areas of the brain during certain stages of sleep, which correlated with learning, regardless of learning procedures, languages, or other types of learning.
What happens when we skimp on sleep?
- Concentration and performance suffers. Not surprisingly, your performance suffers significantly when you are sleep deprived — but, interestingly, one study showed that students rated their ability to concentrate and perform higher than those who had slept. In other words, not only does sleeplessness make us perform worse, it greatly impairs our ability to accurately judge the quality of our work. A tragic example of bad judgment due to sleep deprivation was the Challenger shuttle explosion.
- Mood worsens. Depression and sleep problems are strongly related. Lack of sleep can cause symptoms of depression, which can disappear when sleep habits improve.
- Reaction time slows. In fact, the effects of sleep deprivation are comparable to being drunk, particularly when it comes to driving without sleep.
- Stresses increases. Rats deprived of sleep began developing sores in one study, and other research has linked missed sleep to increased stress hormones and weakened immune function.
- Health worsens. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with a variety of health conditions: hypertension, obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, depression, and stroke.
Clearly, sleep is important, not just for academics, but for safety and health reasons too. But there is a reason why so many people are chronically sleep deprived — life gets in the way. If you find yourself dreaming of how good it feels to be refreshed and alert during the day, try out some of the following tips:
Tips for Getting Better Sleep
- Time management: Many people feel as though there just aren’t enough hours in the day. If that’s the case, have a look at this article on time management practices. When you are scheduling your week, specifically schedule in time to unwind at night before going to bed and sleeping for seven to eight hours.
- Relax before bedtime: Take the time to unwind from the day. It is especially helpful to have some sort of quiet routine, such as herbal tea and a relaxing book, as this sort of routine cues the body to get ready to sleep soon. You can also try some of these relaxation techniques.
- Avoid caffeine after lunch: According to one study, caffeine can last in the body for five to eight hours. It’s a good idea to avoid caffeine in the afternoon because it can make it difficult to fall asleep at night.
- Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule: Weekend sleeping in can throw off your circadian rhythms. It is tempting to sleep in on Saturday, but you have essentially set yourself up for jet-lag on Monday.
- Quiet, dark, and comfortable room: Any sources of light or noise can be disruptive to sleep. Many find cooler temperatures more comfortable for sleeping. It might be a good idea to invest in an eye mask or ear plugs to help you sleep.
- Limit alcohol: Although it helps you fall asleep faster, alcohol leads to worse quality of sleep. It reduces the overall total of REM sleep and causes you to wake up more frequently as your body metabolizes the alcohol.
- Keep the lights low: As your typical bedtime approaches, limit screen time with TVs, tablets, computers, and phones, as well as being in rooms with bright light, as it can suppress melatonin, the hormone associated with sleepiness.
- Use your bedroom only for sleep: As much as possible, you want to classically condition yourself to think bedroom and bed with sleep – not with reading, studying, or watching TV. Likewise, try not to associate sleeping or napping with couches or comfortabe chairs, but only with your bed.
- Keep your naps short: Naps can be restorative, particularly in the middle of the afternoon, but only if you keep them between 10 and 30 minutes. Longer naps can leave you feeling groggy and harm your ability to sleep at night.
What are your best tips for getting a good night’s rest? Be sure to tell us in the comments below!