Today marks the first day of summer. (This calls for a celebration in the form of an abnormally long title for this post!) Although I still haven’t gotten the chance to go out to the beach, I’ve done something that, in my opinion, has been just as gratifying and pleasant. I’ve been able to sleep about ten hours each night, waking up on my own as the sunlight comes out to play. Apart from all the effects it’s had on my energy levels and the amount of daytime available for me to do everything I need to do, I know there’s another type of great outcome that’s arisen from my new, sleep-inclusive and sleep-embracing lifestyle. So, in an effort to transition into a small (fingers crossed), future post on biorhythms and sleep, I’d like to jog my own memory (and yours) and talk a little about the importance of sleep in terms of our memory.
As a college student and even just as an adult in general, one can quickly get accustomed to sleeping what we each individually deem as necessary. While the recommended amount of sleep essential for proper brain functioning is about 8-9 hours, I cannot stress how often I hear from others that this fact is far from the reality for them. I’ve heard some really surprising statements at times. Here’s just a few:
- “Well, I only really need 5 hours and then I’m good to go.”
- “So what I like to do is divide my 8 hours into two. I go to sleep like at 3 am and wake up early like at 8 am. Then, I take an afternoon nap. I mean, it works out fine.”
- “What I do is that sometimes I pull an all-nighter to do what I need to do. I get up and go to work or class and then I come back and nap for like 12 hours. I get the rest I need and I get my stuff done.”
Here’s to hoping that none of the people I know will stumble upon this exposure of their lifestyles. In truth, I don’t really judge the people that put work or jobs above their need for sleep since I was one of those people not long ago (ahem, six months ago to be exact). BUT, sleep is very necessary for much more important functions than we often consider.
The proper functioning of our memory depends a lot on our sleep, specifically the consolidation of our memories. This is the reason why when we’re young and even throughout school we’re told to get a good night’s sleep before a big exam or any big day. The problem is that what exactly constitutes a “good night’s sleep” is up for interpretation. To address this problem we must first recognize how each segment within the cycle of sleep translates to memory formation:
- Our four sleep cycles can be divided into non-REM (REM as in rapid eye movement) and REM sleep. While each stage is unique, our third stage of non-REM, also known as slow-wave sleep or deep sleep, is largely responsible for consolidation and strengthening of our declarative memories (the what memories)
- Our REM cycle is responsible for consolidating some of our procedural and spatial memory (the how and where memories).
Major Interruptions and Their Repercussions
- According to a study published in 2000 (link below): “REM sleep deprivation leads to substantial fragmentation of sleep architecture. Resulting from the frequent arousals during REM sleep, emotional as well as attentive disturbances can be observed. These disturbances particularly affect retrieval testing performance after sleep.” This means that interruptions during your sleep, or as in scenario #2 above where one only gets less than five hours of sleep and then resorts to afternoon napping, doesn’t allow you to reach necessary REM sleep. This, in turn, alters your ability to retrieve memories (information that has been processed and stored) adequately.
- The thing about sleep is that it’s a mesh of various stages that occur in cycles, repeatedly. This explains the huge problem with scenario #1. If we do not get the right amount (8-9 hours) continuously, we miss out on getting the essential booster for safely storing our memories and forming the proper connections to retrieve them properly when necessary.
- Finally, looking at scenario #3 we can already start to see that this irregular pattern of sleep that has already become habitual could present huge problems short-term and long-term. It is true that for all three scenarios a person could experience lack of energy and motivation, lack of focus and attention, larger appetite, mood alterations (being cranky and irritated), etc. When abnormal sleep patterns become a habit, then we are also at risk of developing serious health problems. One such problem is Alzheimer’s disease. Yes, that’s right. This is the same disease that progressively destroys our memories among other brain functions. (A link to an article is found below)
While making work or school a priority can provide some sort of instant reward (such as completing our duties and getting that paycheck or good grade), it’s not really worth forgoing sleep. Think about it this way: placing sleep at the bottom of your priority list now is going to end up backfiring and will bring everything you’ve placed on top of it crumbling to pieces. Even more so, sleep is crucial for protecting those irreplacable memories we treasure most.
This post doesn’t cover the entire scope of the beautiful realm of sleep. More papers, articles, and cool websites can be found below.
For more on:
- Just how important sleep is for memory formation:
- Lack of sleep leading to Alzheimer’s:
- Bad sleep habits in general:
- A real simple way to get to know your non-REM and REM:
- The relationship between memory and sleep stages:
- A more detailed, technical paper on how sleep research is conducted and its evolution:
- My favorite: Habits to improve your night’s sleep