You’ve probably heard that you need to be getting more sleep. Most of us have encountered this idea at some point or another. No matter what we’re trying to improve in our lives, be it our relationships, school performance, work performance, mood, health, immunity, anxiety levels, weight, hormone health, or peace of mind, the verdict is clear: getting enough sleep can help. The following will explore in detail how and why sleep can help us with just one aspect of our life: our memory. This is particularly useful for those of us who need to be studying and remembering lots of material. Of course, it is also beneficial for anyone who wants to be able to recall that wickedly funny movie quote at the right time or remember more of what they read.
Before we begin, it’s important to note that there are medical conditions that can impact our ability to remember things. If your sleep habits haven’t changed recently and you’re suddenly struggling to remember the sorts of things that were pretty easy for you to recall in the past, it might be worth visiting with your local doctor or natural health practitioner. If you’ve had a knock on the head or an impact recently, it’s even more adamant that you reach out to a medical professional. Mild concussions can cause thinking struggles and challenge your memory, just the same as serious concussions. If you’re noticing you have a sensitivity to light or sound in addition to the memory struggles, again, seek out a doctor or naturopath.
One of the best things you can do to improve your sleep habits is to track your sleep. Very quickly, if you write down when you went to bed and when you got up, as well as your mood, memory, creativity, and stress levels each day, you’ll notice a pattern that you cannot allow yourself to ignore. Many people also find the use of their sleep tracking to be improved if used in tandem with a rem calculator, a tool that will let you know how much sleep you’re likely to need based on several pieces of data. You can use your sleep track journal (which can double as a dream journal which is also highly recommended because when you write your dreams down, you remember future dreams you have more clearly as well) as an awareness of where you’re at and the results of your calculation as to where you’re aiming and chart your progress.
We Don’t Know Everything About Sleep
Now let’s dive into the intricate relationship between sleep and memory. First and foremost, you need to understand that as clever as humans are, we don’t fully understand all aspects of sleep and what our minds are doing while we’re sleeping. We don’t understand why we dream (or what is actually going on in our brains while we’re doing it). We don’t understand why babies and adults sleep differently. Yes, we’ve discovered that if you time chemotherapy to “nighttime” in our circadian clocks, less chemotherapy is needed, but we don’t fully know why that is. All we know is that when people stop sleeping or are chronically or even occasionally sleep deprived, things begin to go awry.
Sleep Is Linked With Memory
For over 100 years, humans have been studying the link between memory and sleep, and while we don’t fully understand the process as a whole, we can be reasonably certain that sleep plays a memory consolidation role. What this means is that while we sleep, our memories are sorted and stored. Our mind decides what to preserve (using another very complex system we don’t fully understand that is linked with our emotional responses to the memory) and discarding anything that seems excessive or not useful for the future. This might seem a bit harsh, but consider your route to school or work. Can you remember every walk or drive to work from the last month? Probably not. You likely remember the mornings where something unusual happened (like finding a lucky coin) or something emotional (like being late and stressing about it). Your mind has decided that remembering the route is enough; you’ll be able to get to work tomorrow but won’t be bogged down by remembering all the times you had the exact same walk.
Research has also found that this period of memory consolidation seems to take place during both the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage and the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of your sleep. This means that the entire night’s sleep is crucial for optimal memory, not just one phase or another.
Furthermore, while sleep reduction can result in fewer memories stored and saved for later, it can also reduce your ability to learn new material the following day. Memory is a highly complicated system, and you can imagine how quickly several days of sleep deprivation could wreak havoc on your academic studies. Not only are you not saving the valuable information you need to pass, but you’re also making it harder on yourself to understand the stuff you’re supposed to be consolidating the following night when you sleep.
What’s A Good Amount Of Sleep?
While every person is different, many researchers are looking to the past as an indication of what the “proper” amount of sleep is. Because we’ve been fiddling with our schedules and expectations of ourselves for generations, it’s hard to get an accurate count. In 1910, it was estimated that people got on average 9 hours of sleep per night in America. That’s the average. That means that plenty of people were getting more than nine hours.
The above information should have made it clear how intrinsically linked sleep and memory are, as well as give you the data you need to begin repairing your sleep health. Many of us have developed truly terrible habits from early adulthood (or, in some cases, even our childhoods), which make adapting to new sleep patterns difficult. It might take some time to get things where you need them to be for optimal performance, but the results will be so positive that you’ll be frustrated you didn’t start this work sooner.