Sleep debt can cost students a lot

Noor Ashouri

Stop cramming and get some sleep. Despite the college tradition of all-nighters, research says that sleep is vital for cognitive success and memory.
What researchers call “sleep debt” is proven to decrease your memory and learning ability.

The infamous all-nighter: intended to help you make a better grade on tomorrow’s exam by skipping out on sleep to cram in the information that’s been sitting untouched. Despite the countless people who’ve tried to convince you out of all-nighters, you do them anyway. Your future self needs it.

However, research suggests you’re doing your future self no favors.

A sleep-deprived person focuses less on day-to day activities, according to Harvard Medical School. But research also suggests sleeping affects your ability to learn and memorize in deeper ways than just that.

In an interview with NPR, Penelope Lewis, director of University of Manchester’s Sleep and Memory Lab said, “People might think that memories remain static and it’s just kept like a library book on a shelf. That’s not the case.” She said memories actually change and become stronger during sleep.

Lewis gave the example of learning to play the piano. The areas in your brain used to learn how to move your fingers become active again during sleep, replaying the actions in your head to make the memory stronger.

“It’s kind of like your brain is rehearsing stuff without you knowing,” Lewis said.

Learning new concepts in school works this way too. So, what does this mean for the average college student?

Sleep. Adults should have 7-8 hours of sleep, according to the Center of Disease Control.

College students average 6-6.9 hours a night, according to the University Health Center at the University of Georgia. This is only an hour or less than the minimum recommendation. But even falling short by a little can put us in “sleep debt.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, even modest daily reductions in sleep can build up to sleep debt and impair daily performance and thinking.

Sleep deprivation can reduce your learning abilities by 40 percent, according to NIH. In a study published in the Journal of American College Health, college students that slept eight hours did significantly better on a cognitive test than students who hadn’t slept in 24 hours.

The stage of sleep most crucial to learning and memory is deep sleep. Deep sleep starts to decrease with age, starting in late 30’s, according to NIH. So, generous sleeping habits are especially important when you’re young.

But no matter how much we sleep, it’s impossible to remember everything. But do you really need to remember where you parked your car or the color of your professor’s shirt?

While we’re asleep, the brain is trashing trivial facts like these.

“If you keep storing all of this stuff, you reach capacity and you can’t keep storing more. And so what happens during sleep is that all of those synapses get downscaled again,” Lewis said.

Garbage out. Important concepts strengthened.

This doesn’t mean sleeping well exclusively the night before an exam gives you all the benefits. Sleep preps the brain for learning and making connections between old and new memories.

“Realize that the sleep you get the night after you study is at least as important as the sleep you get before you study,” Dr. Robert Stickgold, sleep expert of Harvard Medical School, said.

Don’t make excuses. Sleep on it.

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