A good night's sleep is crucial to remembering the waking world

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Humans spend about a third our their entire lives asleep...at least, that's the theory. Lots of people get by on significantly less sleep, but this has its trade-offs. And memory is one of the biggest victims of not enough sleep.

Many people, either by necessity or by choice, don't get as much sleep as researchers recommend (myself very, very much included). It's fairly well-known that a lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on people's abilities to function, and now we have a very specific reason why a full night's sleep is a good idea. It turns out sleep is essential to the proper maintenance of our memories.


Notre Dame researcher Jessica D. Payne explains:

"Sleep is making memories stronger. It also seems to be doing something which I think is so much more interesting, and that is reorganizing and restructuring memories. In our fast-paced society, one of the first things to go is our sleep. I think that's based on a profound misunderstanding that the sleeping brain isn't doing anything."


Payne and her colleagues found in their research that some of the most active brain regions during sleep periods are those involved with emotion and memory consolidation. As we sleep, our brains work through the day's memories, focusing on the most emotionally resonant parts. It's a process of consolidation and organization that separates the most important information from everything else. The researchers suspect this process is essential to our continuing ability to come up with original creative ideas.

And this is one instance where someone is actually practicing what they preach concluded from their research. Payne says:

"I give myself an eight-hour sleep opportunity every night. I never used to do that-until I started seeing my data. We can get away with less sleep, but it has a profound effect on our cognitive abilities."


[Current Directions in Psychological Science]