Sleep & Memory Consolidation
As important as it is to be productive and live a balanced life, it seems like for a great deal of people, students in particular, health comes second to term papers. I suppose it’s an occupational hazard, but it’s pretty interesting to think that despite the incredibly adverse affects on our intellect, sleep is the first healthy habit to go.
Most people have figured out on their own that we need sleep (or caffeine) to recharge and start the next day energized, but they seem to ignore the other equally important benefits. The second most known benefit of sleep is likely that it helps our immune systems function, which, while obviously important, can also be supplemented to an extent with vitamins and healthy eating. However, the one function of sleep that we absolutely cannot replace is memory consolidation.
Basically, when you encounter or experience something important, an area of the brain called the hippocampus becomes active and works to hold that event in your short term memory. In order for these short term memories to become long term, and thus less easily forgotten, the brain needs to consolidate the information and store it outside of the hippocampus. This process involves the formation, breakdown, and reformation of synapses (connections between neurons) throughout the cortex. It turns out that one of the best things you can do to ensure that this process goes smoothly is sleep.
When you sleep, your brain “downscales” the unimportant activity of irrelevant synapses and “upscales,” or increases activity of, important synapses. A four-year-long study recently published physical proof of this phenomenon in the form of actual pictures of synapse activity in mice: “they found that a few hours of sleep led on average to an 18 percent decrease in the size of the synapses.” (Neuroscience News). Similar findings have been found in people too.
Ironically, students give up a lot of sleep in the name of studying information they’ll never fully retain because of that lack of sleep.
~ Jackie Rocheleau