Article written by Olivia Kneebone, current European Legal Studies student at The University of Westminster.
“Human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain.”
Dr Matthew Walker is a neuroscientist and sleep expert and his book, Why We Sleep, outlines the impacts of sleep on human health. Whilst I highly recommend his book, I definitely do not want to scare readers by talking about all the potential diseases we may be making ourselves susceptible to through lack of sleep, so this article will be primarily focused on how it can affect our learning. A common issue between me and my university friends, and I’m sure one for majority of students, is a lack of focus and a lack of mental clarity or brain fog if you will. Whilst researching some of Dr Walker’s work, it became increasingly more credible that these issues could all be linked back to something as simple as lack of a good night’s sleep.
Unfortunately, the trials and tribulations of modern society have increasingly impacted on both our amount of sleep and the quality of our sleep. During a study at the University of York 2019, it was found that around 74% of university students are sleep deprived. Whilst parents and lecturers would argue the reason behind these statistics is partying and drinking too hard, the mental health epidemic is no doubt contributing to these daunting numbers. Students are under a lot of pressure to a) perform well in university and b) support themselves financially all whilst trying to maintain a fun and social lifestyle. It is also important to consider that a lot of students have moved away from their hometown and so therefore lack their normal and comfortable support system. It is therefore inevitable that stress and anxiety of some magnitude will affect both quality and quantity of sleep. The most pressing issue is that most students probably don’t even know they are sleep deprived as we are so used to operating in a zombie state and counterbalancing the effects with a Red Bull or a coffee.
Every species on the planet needs sleep of some degree. For the homo sapien, The National Sleep Foundation recommends an average of eight hours of sleep per night, however many of us are falling short of this. But it isn’t necessarily even about the amount of hours you sleep. Most of us do aim for those magic eight hours, but we might not be sleeping productively.
There are four total stages of sleep, divided into two phases and each has a unique function and role in maintaining your brain’s overall cognitive performance:
1st stage of non-REM: As you drift off to sleep you are entering phase 1 of non-REM sleep. You are relaxed. But may stir or become easily awoken for about 10 minutes
2nd stage of non-REM: This is where your body is preparing for deep sleep. Your heart rate and body temperature will lower and your muscles begin to twitch
3rd stage of non-REM: You will not be easily woken up.
4th stage- REM sleep: Your brain activity increases, your pulse quickens, and you will experience vivid dreams. This is the most important stage as REM sleep stimulates the areas of your brain that are essential in learning and making or retaining memories. Multiple studies have found that low REM sleep predicts speedier decline one some cognitive tests.
Research suggests that sleep helps learning and memory in two distinct ways. Firstly, you need sleep before learning to get your brain ready to learn – to soak up new information. A sleep-deprived person cannot focus attention optimally and therefore cannot learn efficiently. Take a laptop for example. You wouldn’t be able to take notes to start with or google some information if your laptop was out of charge. Once learning the new information, your brain will process and store the information for a short-term period. It is then important to sleep after you have learnt the new information. Sleep itself has a role in the consolidation of memory, which is essential for learning new information. In the most simplest terms, your brain makes a transfer of information from the short- term memory store to a long-term memory store, where you will easily be able to recall the information. In a way, it can be likened to transferring all the information on to a USB stick, which you can plug in at a later date and recall all the information. Whilst all this sounds pretty obvious (just sleep the night before you go to university and sleep the night after), if we don’t get a sufficient amount of sleep, the four stages are out of sync and new information we have learnt stays in the short-term store and slowly drifts off into the abyss.
Stick to a sleep schedule*: your body’s internal clock follows a specific sleep wake cycle. Going to bed at 10pm one night and the 2am the next throws your circadian rhythm off balance, and it has been proven that ‘catching up’ on your sleep might not be that effective.
For more information about the power of your circadian rhythm, take a look at the Siffre cave study.
*a little PSA: this does not mean no more late nights in the club! A good social life is very important, but moderation is key.
Exercise is great, but not too late in the day: try and aim for no later than two to three hours before your bedtime
Avoiding large meals and drinks: a snack is okay, but large meals can cause indigestion which interferes with sleep. Also drinking too much means you will keep waking up to go to the toilet.
Dark bedroom, cool bedroom, tech-free bedroom: Try and limit distractions like the red light on your TV, your phone blowing up or warm temperatures.
Relax before bed: This one is easier said than done. When stress or anxiety kick in, that prevents us from sleeping and then we tend to stress even more that we’re not getting enough sleep! Try and schedule in some time in your day to wind down, making a cut off point for doing work so that you’re not too over stimulated when you try to sleep.
Don’t take naps after 3 p.m.: this makes it harder to sleep at night.