The Importance of Sleep on Learning and Memory

When my sister was in high school, she was the class salutatorian.  She took an entire college semester’s worth of AP classes and always did more than the minimum requirements to pass.  Every night, she would stay up past midnight studying and completing homework.  She wanted to understand every last word on the page and complete every assignment to perfection.  People would say that she was “a genius,” and “perfect,” and ask my mother how she got her to be that way.  Teachers loved her and wished that their other students could be that way.  It seemed that she really had it right.

However, there were many nights then as well as in college when she only got two hours of sleep a night.  Although her efforts paid off in scholarship money, it’s hard to say whether or not this was the best course of action for her.  Many of her days were spent full of stress and fatigue, and she often decided to forgo other things that people her age would do.  There were obvious health implications of how she was living, but she continued to push forward thinking that she would ultimately come out on top in the end, often downing several cups of coffee throughout the day and then not being able to sleep once she finally got to bed.

Although I definitely feel that my sister is a great success and I look up to her even though she is almost nine years younger than me, I wonder what the long term effects of sleep deprivation will be for her.  I also wonder if her consistent all-nighters were actually saving her time in the end, or if she was just pushing herself to do more of what she was already doing because she didn’t know a more efficient way.

What the Research Says about Sleep Deprivation

sleep deprivationWe already know that sleep deprivation has negative effects on our health, but what about on our learning and memory?  I decided to do a little research to explore this question.

According to The New Science of Learning, sleep is when the brain clears the hippocampus of unwanted information so that it is ready to learn new information the next day.  Without it, your brain is unable to commit information to long term memory, and you will find that you have to review all of the information you read about more times than if you had initially learned it with a healthy sleep pattern.

Additionally, each person has his or her own sleep pattern.  That is to say that some are morning people, some do best in the evening, and some do best in the middle of the day.  It’s important to find your sleep pattern to determine when you are the most alert because that is when the best learning takes place.  Of course, our school system is built in a way that works best for morning people, so some of us are a little bit out of luck.  However, we can foster habits that allow us to maximize on our “morning person” potential, such as eliminating caffeine from our diet, making sure we don’t eat or exercise before bed time, and being sure to establish a consistent bedtime that allows 7.5-9 hours of sleep a night.

Research-Based Tips for Parents:

  • Educate your children about sleep and don’t forget to ask them how they have been sleeping as a part of your daily routine. Most people need 7.5-9 hours of sleep, but teenagers frequently need more!
  • You can advise your child to take a 20-30 minute nap eight hours after waking (if logistically possible) to improve memory if they have trouble remembering things long term.
  • Also educate them about taking breaks in between activities.  People need to take breaks in order to avoid exhausting their brain.   This should be a break from sensory stimulation.  Have them sit in a quiet place and close your eyes for a few minutes in between assignments.  Take deep, relaxed breaths.
  • Serve dinner earlier in the evening so that your child is getting quality sleep.  Make sure that you aren’t waking your teens up on the weekends without a specific reason—they may need that amount.  If you notice that your child is having difficulty remembering things, have them try to get into a better sleep pattern.
  • Make sure that when kids sleep, their bedroom is quiet and dark, and consider buying earplugs for them if you live near a busy road or have a lot going on in your home.
  • Avoid keeping caffeinated beverages and lots of snack foods in the home as consuming these, especially close to bedtime, can cause interrupted sleep patterns.
  • Encourage your child to get outside in the morning when they first get up.  A good way to have this happen is to assign them dog-walking duty or taking out the trash as one of their chores.