Sleep strengthens your memories … and makes you more creative!

man stifling a yawn

A good night’s sleep is important for memory consolidation

Be honest, haven’t there been times lately when you’ve skimped on your sleep simply because the pace of modern life is just too hectic? I know I’ve been guilty of that mistake. And yet we all know, deep down, that there’s more to sleep than just losing consciousness. We feel the value of it, specially when we’ve just woken up after an unbroken seven or eight hours. Yet, the truth is, for many of us, it seems like nothing’s really happening, and, well, y’know, life’s just so-o-o fast-paced these days, and it kinda seems like a whole load of wasted time.

WRONG!

Memory consolidation and reorganisation

A recent research study is showing that there’s a whole lot going on during sleep. According to the authors of an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science, as reported in ScienceDaily, Dec 17, 2010, sleep doesn’t just consolidate memories, it actively reorganises them! The brain seems to focus particularly on the most emotionally charged aspects of memories, and those memories are made stronger. And the emotional aspect, it seems, is what is grabbing the brain’s attention.

As individuals interested in how to improve memory, we should really take note of this – the brain is fascinated by drama and high emotion. Since sleep increases memory, we should take every opportunity to dramatise our vividly imagined memories if we really want to store them more securely and make them more reliable.

Research study into the importance of sleep

But sleep is doing more than making memories stronger, says Jessica D. Payne of the University of Notre Dame, one of the co-authors of the review.

“It also seems to be doing something which I think is so much more interesting, and that is reorganizing and restructuring memories.”

Payne and Kensinger (her co-author) have noted during their research study into the various stages of sleep that their subjects cling particularly onto the most dramatic parts of a memory. For example, if they’re shown pictures of the scene at a car accident, the memory of the accident will be strengthened, whereas peripheral details will likely be forgotten. And this is more noticeable after the subjects have had a night’s sleep. The researchers have measured brain activity during various stages of sleep, and they have found that two important regions are particularly active – those involved in emotion and memory consolidation.

The hectic pace of modern life

Payne makes the point that we tend to take the importance of sleep far too lightly. The increasingly hectic pace of modern life, with all its technological distractions, makes it oh so easy to be drawn into spending long hours staring at the computer, or staring at the television.

But, as she says, that’s all based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of sleep. While we’re asleep, she says, our brains are busy reorganising our memories, and, she thinks, coming up with new and creative ideas too.

tired man rubbing his eyes

Lack of sleep could be bad for your memory

Still not convinced? Jessica Payne has, herself, taken her research study results very firmly to heart – she makes a point now of regularly getting a good, sound eight hours sleep a night, something she didn’t previously see as particularly important. People who say they’ll have plent of time to sleep when they’re dead are sacrificing their ability to have good thoughts now, she says.

 

“We can get away with less sleep,” she continues, “but it has a profound effect on our cognitive abilities.”

Take note: don’t skimp on sleep

I suppose it’s up to each of us to take note of this research, and to come to a personal decision on it. Is it really wise to continue to skimp on a decent night’s sleep, simply because working, or playing, or in some way staring a a computer until the early hours seems so, so important?

It’s thoughts like this that could keep you awake at night …

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