Sleep habits and the ‘A’ student

As I followed two students down the hall, I could not help but overhear bits of their conversation: “I just pulled an ‘all nighter’ and I am not sure all that cramming worked.  I just finished the exam and what I thought I had retained. . .simply disappeared.”

I was tempted to intervene and provide them with some unsolicited advice, but I resisted the temptation as they carried on down the hall. I was going to remind them of some new evidence of links between a good night’s sleep and memory, all of which seriously questions that old and outdated wisdom that suggests studying all night will enhance that next morning’s exam performance.

Recent research suggests that when people learn new skills and/or new information their retrieval performance does not improve until after they have had more than six – and preferably eight – hours of sleep.  What students have studied or tried to learn does not get properly encoded in their brain’s memory circuits.

New work has identified a critical association between memory banks, retrieval and the first and last stages of a night’s sleep. This research data has some very important implications for institutions such as universities, academies, medical schools and the military; institutions that attempt to train/educate people after long periods of sleep deprivation.

As a “draftee” during my basic training (with the 101st Airborne Division), it was futile trying to learn to strip a .30 calibre, water-cooled machine gun, while suffering from severe sleep debt after being roused out of bed at 5 a.m. for reveille.  I am sure our field first sergeant never once thought that our performance on the firing range might be affected by a sleep debt.

How many of our current student population will try for greater sleep in the midst of October’s mid-term examinations or the coming final exams in December? Only a very small, but wise minority will do so.

In experiments in sleep laboratories, individuals who slept for eight solid hours get healthy bouts of two kinds of sleep. The first two hours are spent in deep, slow-wave sleep while the last two hours were spent in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and those that receive both types of sleep tended to have much better retrieval for materials they had learned the day before.  Even those students tested two to three days to a week after their training could do the visual tasks given them more accurately and faster.

Recent neuroscience research has provided an explanation for such phenomena. During the first two hours of sleep (slow-wave sleep) certain brain chemicals are in steep decline as information flows out of a memory region (hippocampus) into the cerebral cortex.

During the next four hours, the brain engages itself in an active neurochemical conversation during which the information is distributed, categorized and networked.

During the last two hours of sleep, brain chemistry and activity again change drastically as the cortex goes into an active dreaming state.  The memory region is now shut off from the cortex as the brain literally re-enacts the learning and solidifies the new connections in its memory banks or what is referred to as “consolidation”.

Those students who do not get sufficient sleep will not integrate the new material, the new facts or concepts into their memories.

Making such healthy sleep even more difficult, university students tend to suffer from a form of “sleep bulimia”; purging (sleeping little) and then bingeing, wherein they try to get by on three to five hours of sleep per day and binge by sleeping around the clock on weekends.   Most of the information learned during a sleep-deprived period, however, will likely be lost; the forgetting curve is remarkably steep.

So experts have concluded that how well university students do on an examination apparently does not depend on what high school they attended, nor on their graduating GPA, nor on their SAT scores or even I.Q. measures, or tragically not even on how hard they may have tried.

Rather such academic success mostly depends on how well they slept the night before.

So from that set of conclusions, the advice I might give to the two students I followed down the hall that day, might really be very simple: “Just as your mother/father might suggest, please do get a good night’s sleep!”