Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested.
Sleep is not the absence of wakefulness. It is far more than that. Described earlier, our nighttime sleep is an exquisitely complex, metabolically active, and deliberately ordered series of unique stages Numerous functions of the brain are restored by, and depend upon, sleep. No one type of sleep accomplishes all. Each stage of sleep—light NREM sleep, deep NREM sleep, and REM sleep—offer different brain benefits at different times of night. Thus, no one type of sleep is more essential than another. Losing out on any one of these types of sleep will cause brain impairment. Of the many advantages conferred by sleep on the brain, that of memory is especially impressive, and particularly well understood. Sleep has proven itself time and again as a memory aid: both before learning, to prepare your brain for initially making new memories, and after learning, to cement those memories and prevent forgetting.
Sleep before learning refreshes our ability to initially make new memories. It does so each and every night. While we are awake, the brain is constantly acquiring and absorbing novel information (intentionally or otherwise). Passing memory opportunities are captured by specific parts of the brain. For fact-based information—or what most of us think of as textbook-type learning, such as memorizing someone’s name, a new phone number, or where you parked your car—a region of the brain called the hippocampus helps apprehend these passing experiences and binds their details together.
A long, finger-shaped structure tucked deep on either side of your brain, the hippocampus offers a short-term reservoir, or temporary information store, for accumulating new memories. Unfortunately, the hippocampus has a limited storage capacity, almost like a camera roll or, to use a more modern-day analogy, a USB memory stick. Exceed its capacity and you run the risk of not being able to add more information or, equally bad, overwriting one memory with another: a mishap called interference forgetting. How, then, does the brain deal with this memory capacity challenge? Some years ago, my research team wondered if sleep helped solve this storage problem by way of a file-transfer mechanism.
We examined whether sleep shifted recently acquired memories to a more permanent, long-term storage location in the brain, thereby freeing up our short-term memory stores so that we awake with a refreshed ability for new learning. We began testing this theory using daytime naps. We recruited a group of healthy young adults and randomly divided them into a nap group and a no-nap group. At noon, all the participants underwent a rigorous session of learning (one hundred face-name pairs) intended to tax the hippocampus, their short-term memory storage site. As expected, both groups performed at comparable levels. Soon after, the nap group took a ninety-minute siesta in the sleep laboratory with electrodes placed on their heads to measure sleep.
The no-nap group stayed awake in the laboratory and performed menial activities, such as browsing the Internet or playing board games. Later that day, at six p.m., all participants performed another round of intensive learning where they tried to cram yet another set of new facts into their short-term storage reservoirs (another one hundred face-name pairs). Our question was simple: Does the learning capacity of the human brain decline with continued time awake across the day and, if so, can sleep reverse this saturation effect and thus restore learning ability?