July 13, 2024

Have you ever stayed up late into the night studying for a midterm? It turns out cramming for exams may not have the results you hoped for. Research has shown that by depriving the brain of sleep, it is not able to process memories as effectively. This becomes a problem when starting to combine frequent late nights with studying.

“Memory consolidation, the process of your brain turning short-term memories into stable, enduring long-term memories, is enhanced by sleep,” said Dr. Erin Smith, professor of psychology. “After a bout of studying, it’s far better to take a quick nap than to zone out with TikTok. The nap facilitates consolidation. TikTok scrolling serves (more or less) as interference to memory consolidation.”

When trying to remember large amounts of material, it is crucial to provide our brain with the sleep it requires.

Failure to do so will negatively affect our memory and likely lead to other adverse health effects.

“We are biological creatures that require (sleep),” Smith said. “It’s a huge act of hubris to think, ‘I have a body that runs this way, but I’m going to subvert that because I don’t think those rules apply to me.’ That’s like saying, ‘I know my car runs on gasoline, but I’m going to dump this canola oil in it instead.”

It can be easy to shrug off a few late nights thinking it will only be temporary. However, that thinking shows a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation.

“When we don’t get enough sleep, we are literally robbing our bodies of the fuel it needs to do what it was designed to do,” Smith said. “The implications are numerous and robust.”

However, getting the proper amount of sleep as a student is often easier said than done.

“I try to go to bed at a decent time,” said Clare Hagan, senior psychology major. “It doesn’t always happen though. Sometimes you have to stay up to finish that assignment or finish studying for an exam.”

As an alternative to sleep-deprived studying, Smith suggests taking naps. This is backed by a study conducted by Harvard Medical School.

In the study, a group of college students spent two minutes memorizing 30 unrelated words. The students were then split into three groups. One group remained awake, another napped for six minutes and the final group napped for 36 minutes.

When recalling the unrelated words, the subjects that remained awake remembered less than seven words, the subjects who slept for six minutes remembered more than eight words and the group
who napped for 36 minutes averaged over nine words.

A second study by Harvard Medical School examined the effects of dreaming on memory. Each subject had an hour to navigate a complex maze. Then half the subjects remained awake while the other half napped for 90 minutes.

This longer nap allowed the students to enter REM sleep, which is when dreaming occurs. The study found that the subjects who dreamed about the maze showed a dramatic improvement when re-examining the maze compared to other students. Only the students who dreamed about the maze showed this improvement.

These studies show how sleep — even brief sleep — affects memory. They also indicate that some relationship may exist between memory and dreams.

There are several theories surrounding dreams. One theory, the activation-synthesis theory, holds that dreams are essentially random neural noise. When we are asleep, we replay the neural connections that were firing during that day. By replaying them, we are strengthening those connections and improving memory.

“Dreams are your brain’s attempts to make sense of all that random firing,” Smith said. “This is why you might have these weird dreams that combine the last thing you saw on Snapchat and a bit of information from the evening’s study session.”

When we are asleep, our brain has the opportunity to process the information we obtained throughout our day. That applies to information retained while studying, as well.

“This is why studying matters,” Smith said. “It’s quite literally your brain practicing the neural connections that are the thing you are trying to learn and store in memory.”

It is unclear and perhaps unlikely that dreams improve memory. However, dreams occur during REM sleep, which does positively affect memory. So, the next time students think about staying up all night to study for an exam, they may want to sleep on it.

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