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Well-Rested Students Perform Better

By Lydia McGee
On April 27, 2017

In the typical student’s day, not much time is blocked off for relaxation or power naps. The draining cycle through frenzied late night cram sessions, classes, family time, study time, and repeat leaves little to no time for quality sleep, let alone enough sleep.

    Recent research, however, has shown that sleeping on new information can dramatically and drastically improve memory function. That power nap or the extra hour of sleep might be the solution instead of the caffeinated alternative.

    Harvard researchers outline exactly how sleep helps develop a healthy memory, and can improve it over time. First, there is the obvious way sleep can impact memory. Sleep deprivation can lead to a distinct lack of focus, and general depression and inability to process information, let alone care about it. “Being chronically tired to the point of fatigue or exhaustion means that we are less likely to perform well. Neurons do not fire optimally, muscles are not rested, and the body’s organ systems are not synchronized,” say Harvard researchers in a 2016 study.

    According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), if you did not sleep well the previous night, then your ability to learn information and retain it during the next day can drop “up to 40%.” Poor sleep, or worse, no sleep, chemically messes with your brain’s natural processes. “Lack of sleep affects a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is key for making new memories,” they report. 

Harvard researchers agree with the NIH on this point and add that our feelings and behavior are impacted as well: “Low quality sleep and sleep deprivation also negatively impact mood, which has consequences for learning. Alterations in mood affect our ability to acquire new information and subsequently to remember that information.”

    However, the body goes through specific cycles during sleep that in and of themselves aid in memory retention. The NIH states that while you sleep, “your brain cycles through different phases of sleep, including light sleep, deep sleep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when dreaming often occurs.”

Sleep, scientists found, helps in the third stage of learning and memory. The three stages are acquisition, recall, and consolidation. As Harvard researchers point out, only acquisition and recall can happen while you are awake, but during sleep, a certain stage can help with consolidation, which is the process that stabilizes a memory in the brain.

    REM sleep, as indicated by these sleep researchers, seems to be this stage of sleep in which the most consolidation takes place. “Scientists hypothesized that REM sleep played an essential role in the acquisition of learned material. Further studies have suggested that REM sleep seems to be involved in declarative memory processes.”

    What is declarative memory? As defined by Harvard researchers, declarative memory is simply the “what” of what we know; that is, the factual information that we do know. They hypothesize, however, that REM sleep is involved in the retention of this material mostly “if the information is complex and emotionally charged, but probably not if the information is simple and emotionally neutral.”

    The evidence, then, suggests that sleep deprivation can drastically harm your memory and the brain’s natural processes in retaining information. Obviously, this evidence carries with it a deep implication for students. In order to live healthily while balancing work, school, and other responsibilities, a student, if he or she wishes to deliver the best performance possible, must have enough sleep in order to function. For many students, this could entail a drastic lifestyle shift.




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