Good-quality sleep throughout a whole night is optimal for learning and memory.
Quality sleep has the power to solve your memory problems and improve cognitive function, says the Sleep Health Foundation (SHF), which has made ‘Sleep on it – memory and problem solving’ the theme of this year’s Sleep Awareness Week.
“There are many different ways in which good-quality sleep plays a major role in our ability to learn, to think clearly and to protect ourselves from any future harm to our brains,” says SHF. “From infancy to old age, sleep is essential for optimal cognitive functioning.”
Three key areas are the focus of Sleep Awareness Week, which runs until 11 August:
- The importance of improved sleep when recovering from a brain injury.
- Dementia and sleep – examining how altered brain activity during sleep may be a risk factor for cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration.
- Sleep apnoea and improvements to cognition when CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) and other treatments are commenced.
The foundation has long known that sleep plays an important role in memory, both before and after learning a new task, and that healthy sleep is essential for optimal learning and memory function. And while it is also known that lack of adequate sleep affects mood, motivation, judgement and our perception of events, there are open questions about the specific role of sleep in forming and storing memories. However, the general consensus is that good quality sleep throughout an entire night is optimal for learning and memory in two distinct ways.
First, a sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently.
“Sleep helps to prepare our brain for learning new things. When we are well rested, we can pay better attention to new information that we come across in our daily experiences,” says SHF.
“Sleep will help make new information ‘stick’. During sleep, the brain replays memories from the day, making the neural connections stronger. This helps us remember the things we experienced when we were awake. Different stages of sleep play a role in forming different types of memory, such as learning ‘how’ to do something (like playing a piano) compared to learning facts.
“Sleep also helps our creativity, helping us find new solutions to problems by looking at things in a new way while we sleep. You may have heard people say they will ‘sleep on it’ in order to solve a problem or make a decision.”
The days of staying out all night and being able to reset for the next day are well behind many of us. We all know what it’s like when we don’t get enough sleep – particularly as we age – limping through the next day, feeling foggy, having trouble concentrating, learning new things or using our memory effectively.
The SHF posits that if you have been awake for 18 hours, your reaction time and ability to concentrate is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 per cent.
Sleep loss can also affect our ability to make sound decisions. Those who sleep five hours or fewer per night over a week make more risky decisions, act more impulsively and have poorer judgement compared to those allowed to sleep for eight hours a night.
“Brain scan studies show that when we are sleep deprived, the parts of the brain that help us weigh up negative outcomes are less active, while those areas that process positive outcomes are more active,” says SHF.
“As a result, we may be more prone to accidents, injuries and errors at work and on the road.”
People who have troubled sleep, such as those with sleep disorders such as Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, will often have trouble concentrating, remembering information or completing simple daily tasks, compared to healthy adults without a sleep disorder. They will also have more difficulty recalling memories from their own lives. The good news is, getting more sleep or treating your sleep disorder will immediately garner improvements in memory and thinking.
“Sleep has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information. Memory consolidation takes place during sleep through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories,” says SHF.
“Being 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 synchronised. Lapses in focus from sleep deprivation can even result in accidents or injury.
“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. Although chronic sleep deprivation affects different individuals in a variety of ways (and the effects are not entirely known), it is clear that a good night’s rest has a strong impact on learning and memory.”
How much sleep do you get each night? Do you recover from lack of sleep like you used to when you were younger?
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