Aaron Chy, BSc, BSc Pharm/PharmD. Candidate
The not-so-good morning.
It’s the start of a new day, and you haven’t slept at all. Your eyes are heavy, you’re dragging your feet, and it’s like you’re floating through a fog as you navigate campus. You down another coffee, and silently hope not one more person dare say “good morning” to you.
You’re sleep deprived. It’s nothing new but that doesn’t matter, you can tough it out because after all, who really needs sleep anyway?
It turns out you might, here’s why.
What role does sleep play in memory?
Bottom line, sleep deprivation makes you less alert, meaning you’re less likely to pay attention and pick up information in the first place. This process, called Acquisition, is the first step in taking on new memories. If you’re tired, you may end up spending more time to learn the same amount of material as someone who’s had proper rest.
But besides that, studies also show that sleep plays an active role in Consolidation; the process where memories are stabilized and converted to long-term memory.2 Without consolidation, you can’t have Recall, which is the retrieval of stored information.1 In other words, if you go without sleep, you run the risk of forgetting most of what you learned anyway, or maybe you won’t retain any at all. Ever pull an all-nighter studying and can’t remember anything after a few days? This is probably why.
That’s great, but where’s the proof?
It’s more than just theoretical, and some studies have looked at the effects of sleep deprivation on learning. Overall, people were better able to learn motor tasks, train skills, and demonstrate a better memory if they were allowed to sleep after learning information.2,3,4,5 In these studies, a night of sleep led to far better memory than simply staying awake and trying to learn through repetition. Surprisingly, it was even found that sleeping as little as five minutes showed an improvement over staying awake, though sleeping for longer was connected to better improvements.
Now you may be thinking this is great, but how does this stand up in the real world? Fortunately, sleep deprivation has been studied in real life, everyday students as well. Middle schoolers who started classes an hour later performed better in math and were more alert overall.6 Similarly, a survey of college students who said they were “short-sleepers” generally had a worse GPA compared to others. Repeat for emphasis: students who slept longer had higher GPAs.7
What does this mean for me?
It means the next time you’re deciding between a few hours of sleep and studying the rest of the night; you may be better off choosing sleep. By getting even a small amount of rest, you’ll be better at remembering what you’ve studied. On the other hand, you can spend all night cramming and still not retain everything anyway. In short; giving yourself a break, and nabbing a couple hours of shut-eye can not only help you feel better but perform better too.
Have an exam coming up? Avoid skimping out on sleep, or, check out our piece on the coffee nap to see how you can restore some energy in as little as 15 minutes. As always, feel free to comment or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck and happy studying!
- Ellenbogen J, Payne J, Stickgold R. The role of sleep in declarative memory consolidation: passive, permissive, active or none?. Current Opinion In Neurobiology [serial online]. January 1, 2006;16(Motor systems / Neurobiology of behaviour):716-722. Available from: ScienceDirect, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 1, 2017.
- OLAF, L., CHRISTIANE, W., BERNADETTE, W., & REINHARD, P. (2008). An ultra short episode of sleep is sufficient to promote declarative memory performance. Journal Of Sleep Research, (1), 3.
- Stickgold, R., James, L., & Hobson, J. (2000). Visual discrimination learning requires sleep after training. Nature Neuroscience, 3(12), 1237-1238. doi:10.1038/81756
- Walker, M. P., Brakefield, T., Morgan, A., Hobson, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2002). Article: Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect. Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning. Neuron, 35205-211. doi:10.1016/S0896-6273(02)00746-8
- Lufi D, Tzischinsky O, Hadar S. Delaying School Starting Time by One Hour: Some Effects on Attention Levels in Adolescents. Journal Of Clinical Sleep Medicine [serial online]. 2011;7(2):137-143. Available from: Science Citation Index, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 1, 2017.
- Kelly, W. E., Kelly, K. E., & Clanton, R. C. (2001). THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SLEEP LENGTH AND GRADE-POINT AVERAGE AMONG COLLEGE STUDENTS. College Student Journal, 35(1), 84.