By Robin Hasty
We all know that starting college is a big, stressful step into life. There are seemingly endless tests, groups (sororities, fraternities, clubs), sports and theater events and oh, the laundry piling up in the corner of your room needs washed! Needless to say, things get a bit hectic. Time flies by and sometimes you’re so caught up in the whirlwind that suddenly the test you have is next week and you don’t remember when you last slept. Suddenly, you start to cram because you need to pass this test and a little echo of your older relative pops into your head of “don’t forget to sleep!” You want to push it out of your head as irrelevant because for one thing, it has been too long for them to be in school. Secondly, they can’t be right, right?
(insert buzzer sounds) You are wrong on a few things! Let’s see if we can fix these, shall we? Firstly, cramming won’t work. (Believe me, I know from experience.) Secondly and possibly the most important thing to take out of this, is do not forget to sleep! That relative was correct in their statement! (You don’t have to tell them that, though.) Sleep is crucial to remembering all of that information that you picked up in class and everywhere else you went.
Two specific parts of your brain are to thank for this, the hippocampus and the neocortex. These parts of your brain are where you store your memories and where it gets sorted out, respectively. (1) Primarily, the information that your brain picks up is originally stored in the working memory. By definition, “working memory is a limited capacity part of the human memory system that combines the temporary storage and manipulation of information in the service of cognition. The term working memory is used most frequently to refer to a limited capacity system that is capable of briefly storing and manipulating information involved in the performance of complex cognitive tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and certain types of learning.” (2) It is kind of like a warehouse for all the information to go to get sorted to its respective spot, long-term, short-term, or discarded.
In a study done by Thomas, et. al., they studied what happens to people when they stop sleeping. They also checked to see what happened when sleep was delayed. They found that “absolute changes in regional cerebral glucose metabolic rate (CMRglu), a marker for neuronal activity, significantly decreased.” (3) So what does that mean exactly? If you do not sleep, your brain essentially overloads and cannot keep up with all of the new information getting thrown at it. Well, the brain keeps firing even if you are asleep but at a lower rate. The brain is like a computer in that regard. If you leave it on with too many tabs open, it doesn’t run as fast and can lock up. When you turn it off and reboot it, the computer runs faster because it has closed those unnecessary programs. Another group, Dienkelmann & Born, researched what was really happening in the brain when someone sleeps. “Neocortical (<1 Hz) slow oscillations, thalamo-cortical spindles and hippocampal sharp-wave ripples are implicated in memory consolidation during SWS. The depolarizing up-states of the slow oscillations synchronously drive the generation of spindles and ripples accompanying hippocampal memory re-activations, thus providing a temporal frame for a fine-tuned hippocampus-to-neocortex transfer of memories.” (4) In plain English, this means that the three areas of the brain; the hippocampus, neocortex, and thalamus are all activated and taking the memories to be stored.
“Alright,” you may be saying, “I get that when you sleep your brain stops having everything seen, smelled, etc. at it, it starts to sort through stuff you learned for a few hours. But, sleep is only good for a little while, right?” “Wrong,” I will say again. Multiple studies will agree with me. The following are just two of them. “The profile of performance in the 24-hr group also indicates that the overnight sleep benefits are not temporary; rather, they persist at least throughout the following day. “ (5) “Consolidation during sleep not only strengthens memory traces quantitatively but can also produce qualitative changes in memory representations.” (4)
In their study, Ellenbogen and company, also found that, ”however, these overnight gains do not appear to be consciously apparent to the individual, suggesting that such benefits operate below the level of awareness. Collectively, these results provide new insights into how and when the process of human relational memory develops, findings that may have important implications for understanding how these memory processes are facilitated.” (5) So people do not really know that the memory is consciously working when they’re asleep!
So next time you think about pulling an all-nighter because you need to study or your friends want to have an all night movie marathon, you’ll know it’s a bad idea! Sleep will help your brain catch up with everything you’ve done and put it into the right memory box. Not only will you feel re-energized when you wake up, your homework will be firmly stored in place! So take a break! Your brain deserves it!
(1) Wilhelm, I., & Born, J. (2011, May 04). System consolidation of memory during sleep. Retrieved November 28, 2018, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00426-011-0335-6
(2) Baddeley, A., & Hitch, G. J. (n.d.). Working memory. Retrieved November 28, 2018, from http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Working_memory
(3) Thomas, M., Sing, H., Belenky, G., Holcomb, H., Mayberg, H., Dannals, R., . . . Redmond, D. (2008, July 07). Neural basis of alertness and cognitive performance impairments during sleepiness. I. Effects of 24 h of sleep deprivation on waking human regional brain activity. Retrieved November 28, 2018, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1046/j.1365-2869.2000.00225.x
(4) Diekelmann, S., & Born, J. (2010, January 04). The memory function of sleep. Retrieved November 28, 2018, from https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn2762
(5) Ellenbogen, J. M., Hu, P. T., Payne, J. D., Titone, D., & Walker, M. P. (2007, May 01). Human relational memory requires time and sleep. Retrieved November 28, 2018, from