It might seem obvious that a good nights sleep is good for us, but, believe it or not, despite decades of research scientists still don’t know exactly why it is that we sleep. There are a few key theories attempting to propose an answer, ranging from fairly intuitive ideas of energy conservation and restoration for the body and mind, to more complex notions of brain processing and memory consolidation (which just so happens to play a crucial role in the learning process).
What the scientists say
We’ve all felt the benefits of a good nights shut eye – it makes us feel happier, more focused, and full of energy. Studies have also shown that sleep plays a huge role in supporting a healthy immune system, is an important factor in judgement and impulse control, and helps to maintain normal motor and cognitive function. Ongoing sleep deficiency can also put you at risk for some chronic health problems, so with research finding that a whopping 60% of students report feelings of sleep deficiency at least three days a week, it’s crucial that we start recognising the importance of catching those Zs.
So what’s actually happening when we sleep? As our heart rate drops and body temperature falls, our brains move through a complex series of phases. We gradually move through the phases of light and then deep sleep, ending up in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, which is when dreaming occurs. Generally the cycle of these phases lasts around an hour and a half, so in a good night’s sleep we’ll go through around five or six cycles. However if our sleep is too short or disrupted we won’t experience the proper cycle, and won’t feel properly rested when we wake up.
How does sleep affect learning?
Sleep affects learning in two ways. Firstly, the shorter attention span and lack of focus that occur when we’re tired are inevitably going to impair our ability to learn effectively. To understand the further effects we need to first look at how the brain learns new information. The learning process happens in three stages – acquisition, consolidation, and recall. The acquisition stage is when the brain is first presented with new information, the memory of this information is reinforced during the consolidation stage, and recall happens when we access the information at a later time.
The acquisition and recall stages only occur while we’re awake, but consolidation takes place during REM sleep. During this sleep phase, the brain is strengthening the neural connections that form our memories. New memories are reinforced while unnecessary information is cleared out, as the brain refreshes itself for the next day.
“Memory recall and ability to maintain concentration are much improved when an individual is rested,” says Dr. Philip Alapat, medical director of the Harris Health Sleep Disorders Center in Texas. “By preparing early and being able to better recall what you have studied, your ability to perform well on exams is increased.”
So while it may feel as though staying up all night cramming is an effective way to save time and study, your brain isn’t properly learning information and turning it into solid memories until you sleep on it. So by studying just a little each day, over a period of time, your brain will sort and store the information much more effectively, and permanently, for recall when it’s needed.
So how much sleep do you really need?
While it’s not true that everyone needs 8 hours sleep each night, most adults need somewhere between 7-9 hours. It’s really a matter of understanding how much you need to feel adequately rested. Keeping a sleep diary can be a helpful way of figuring out just how much you need – if you’re finding yourself grumpy and irritable through the day, or wanting to sleep in for hours more on the weekend, then you’re probably not getting enough.
So how can you go about getting a better night’s sleep?
- If you feel like you aren’t sleeping soundly, or regularly, get into a better sleep routine. Try to wake up and go to bed at around the same time each day, and keep your bedroom for bed related activities only. Don’t let it become a study or else your body will find it difficult to switch off. Also make sure to avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol within a few hours of going to sleep.
- If you’re feeling tired in the day but can’t get to sleep at night be conscious of keeping your circadian rhythms, or ‘body clock’, in check. This means getting out into the sunlight for a little while each day, creating as dark a space as possible in your bedroom at night, and staying away from bright screens and lights at least thirty minutes before going to sleep.
- If you’re struggling to fit in enough sleep at night around a hectic schedule, have a siesta! Squeezing a thirty minute nap into your regular schedule, preferably before 3pm, can seriously boost your energy levels. If your problem is not being able to quiet a busy mind at night, try practicing some deep breathing, relaxation, or meditation techniques. This will help you understand how to calm your body and mind and you’ll find yourself relaxing and sleeping more easily and deeply.
- Try your best to organise your time and study load throughout the semester to avoid those sleepless cram sessions!
Good luck! Remember if you have any questions or require assistance, our friendly student advisers are always here to lend a helping hand.