I always start off the semester with good intentions: I’ll get eight hours of sleep every night and go to bed at 11 p.m. But, as my workload grows and my procrastination follows, sleep is the first thing I sacrifice. Sound familiar? For many students, myself included, pulling all-nighters or nearly all-nighters is a semester ritual. It’s getting to be that time in the semester we love to hate: the end, and with that, those luxurious hours we spend dosing in bed become the easiest thing to replace when we need more time for more studying. So we stay in the UGLi all night.
Like food and water, sleep is one of the essentials, according to doctors, scientists, professors — anyone who wants you to survive. We’re told that without sleep, we’ll get sick or be slower or be more apt to make mistakes. But do we really need to sleep every night?
Until recently there wasn’t a lot of understanding about sleep except that without it things went wrong. Some neuroscientists argue that most damage caused through sleep deprivation could be reversed with, well, sleeping. But, what the brain experiences during sleep that rejuvenates the body is difficult to decipher. More recently it was found that during sleep, memory consolidation occurs, which helps strengthen something learned or experienced through unconscious processing. It’s like giving your brain time to integrate learning into existing memories and better understand what it encountered. Even more interestingly, a study conducted by Northwestern University and published in Nature Neuroscience used that idea of memory consolidation and found that you can actually learn in your sleep if you’re listening to the material during your slumber, making a new argument for getting your eight hours every night. Remember those times when you wished you could just go to sleep, wake up and know the material for your exam? This study proved that may actually work.
In the study, the researchers taught participants two different musical melodies and then had them take naps. While napping, the researchers played one of the melodies and found that once the participants were awake, they could play the tune they had heard while asleep with fewer mistakes — they knew it better. However, it’s important to note that for the improvement to learning to be actualized, the sleeper needs to be consolidating already learned material. It’s like re-reading your notes over and over again, after you read it the first time, each time after is a reinforcement. And now the research suggests that sleep can act as a reinforcing agent too.
There’s a catch, though: In order for this to be effective, besides the material having already been experienced, another study also published in Nature Neuroscience showed that the re-activation of the memories (the listening of the material) needs to take place during slow-wave sleep. Thus if one wakes up during slow-wave sleep, the process is interrupted and learning is actually harmed. Slow-wave sleep is non-REM sleep that occurs throughout the sleep cycle, but more often at the beginning of a night of sleep. Interestingly, elderly people have less slow-wave sleep, which could explain their memory loss.
The studies also show that the initial sleep needs to take place within 30 hours of the learning, and that each subsequent night of sleep further reinforces the memories through the general memory consolidation process. Thus, taking a night off from the UGLi to hit the hay might be more helpful to your studies than you think. Instead of staying up all night to re-read notes and cram for an exam, you may be better off recording your notes, hitting repeat on your speakers and sleeping for the night in a lecture-induced slumber. It might sound crazy, but any excuse to sleep is OK in my book.