The Importance of Sleep in a Sleep-Deprived World

Kwick/ February 26, 2013/ Special Features

By Georgia Bozeday, EdD
Director of Educational Services
Rush NeuroBehavioral Center

Many of us have something of a love-hate relationship with sleep. We’re pretty sure we should be getting more of it. We want to “sleep like a log” every night, but often we find ourselves “tossing and turning” when we finally do “hit the hay,” because we can’t let go of concerns and problems that may have taken center stage during the daytime waking hours. In fact, instead of “sleeping soundly” we end up “losing sleep over it” (whatever the “it” may be) and then we wake up feeling poorly rested and still somewhat anxious.

Obviously, my description of this modern state highlights our many expressions centered on the idea of getting a “good night’s sleep” and our prevailing worries about how to achieve that goal. One common sleep expression, however, will represent the main focus for this article, namely, the recommendation to “sleep on it.” This advice is usually applied to a situation that one is pondering which involves a critical decision or a difficult problem to solve. Recent studies taken from the field of neuroscience demonstrate that the way the brain uses sleep, actually underscores the value of taking a “sleep on it” approach.

This article will focus on two main findings drawn from this current body of research. The first indicates that our brain uses deep, extended sleep as a time to sort through events and information from the day’s activities, reorganizing this input, deciding what to keep and what to discard. Several studies (Stickgold and Walker 2005) demonstrate that especially during the latter part of sleep (stages 3 and 4), our brains work to incorporate recent learning with previously information already stored in our longer-term memory to facilitate future access. In this manner it seems that during extended sleep, the memory systems of the brain move from working memory to longer-term storage. Accordingly, each person’s storage system will differ based on our individually unique set of experiences and related learning. This process is often characterized by stating that sleep has a stabilizing and consolidating effect on newly learned (or experienced) information, rooting it into memories that last and clearing the way for new information to be processed (Breus 2012).

The role of sleep in memory and learning has been documented in studies using a wide variety of topic areas. The areas used in these studies include the following: learning vocabulary, learning musical patterns and passages, learning motor skills, learning math facts, working through logic problems, and many more. Results appear to indicate that, shorter periods of sleep (40-to-90 minutes, often termed “cat naps” or “power naps”) can benefit more factual learning while longer periods of uninterrupted sleep produce a significant increase in performance on higher-level learning tasks and problem solving activities, when measuring performance before sleep with performance after sleep.

A second significant finding from current research indicates that when subjects are given information to learn right before going to sleep at night and told they will be asked to retrieve this information the next day, the brain seems to accomplish what’s termed the process of “differential consolidation,” resulting in more successful recall (Klemm 2011). Researchers discuss the brain’s apparent ability to focus and prioritize memory formation based on instructions given prior to sleep. Additionally, when two research groups (adequate overnight sleep and sleep-deprived) are compared in similar tasks, the ability to discriminate between information labeled as “important” and that stipulated as “not important” suffered the most. This finding would seem to have implications regarding the efficient functioning of our memory systems relative to how sleep influences our decision-making capabilities in everyday life.

Age Sleep Needs
Newborns (0–2 months) 12 to 18 hours)
Infants (3–11 months) 14 to 15 hours
Toddlers (1–3 years) 12 to 14 hours
Preschoolers (3–5 years) 11 to 13 hours
School-age children (5–10 years) 10 to 11 hours
Adolescents (10–17 years) 8.5 to 9.25 hours
Adults, including elderly 7 to 9 hours

(Source: National Sleep Foundation 2012)

Finally, then, we must ask the following question: “How much sleep is enough?” Sleep researchers have measured learning and memory across age groups to determine the average recommended sleep time periods, recognizing that there are individual differences. These findings are listed below, organized by age group.

In case you are wondering, the term “uninterrupted sleep” usually refers to hours of sleep occurring in succession during which there are either no interruptions or interruptions are brief and the sleeper returns to sleep immediately. In other words, getting up for a drink or going to the bathroom usually qualifies. Waking up to work at your computer, answer text messages, etc., usually would not. For this reason, parents are encouraged to take charge (both figuratively and literally) of their children’s cell phones before bedtime to eliminate the temptation to “be on alert” all night for those all-important 2:00 a.m. text messages, as well as other forms of electronic social media related communications that may come in throughout the nighttime and interfere with their child’s getting a good night’s sleep.

The best acknowledgement of the critical relationship between sleep and our ability to develop efficient, high-performing memory systems may be simply to wish everyone, “Sweet Dreams!”

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