How Sleep Affects Memory
Nearly 70 million Americans report living with chronic sleep problems, while approximately 16 million experience some type of memory impairment. Is there a connection?
Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging; however, many people living with sleep disorders are at an increased risk of impaired memory. Current research suggests the brain filters through many different stages of sleep throughout the night to aid in memory recall, making memories, and learning. But just how much does sleep deprivation, or a lack of sleep, affect memory?
What is Memory?
Memory is the process whereby the human brain can acquire, store, and retrieve information learned throughout the day. Memories can be made through three main functions:
- Encode: During encoding, you experience new information that is “encoded” into the different structures of the brain throughout waking hours. During encoding, new memories are at a greater risk of being forgotten if not stored appropriately.
- Consolidate: Through consolidation, the human brain can sort through all-new information learned, categorize between important and wasteful, and store it in different areas of the brain for later use. Consolidation allows the brain to recall information at a later date.
- Retrieve: Just as it sounds, retrieval allows neural pathways to strengthen and pull memories into awareness making you able to recall the information or memory.
Memory impairment or problems can range from minuscule problems, such as forgetting where you put your phone or keys, to much larger problems, like dementia or Alzheimer's disease. The study of the human brain has been the center of attention for decades, and still seems to be quite a mystery to many.
How are Memories Formed?
New memories are formed in specific brain areas, depending on the type of memory. Information learned throughout the day is modified into a form easily sorted and stored by the brain through a process known as encoding.
Once the information has been encoded, a healthy individual's brain stores the information to be used at a later time. Much of the memories formed are stored out of our current awareness, but can quickly travel through neural pathways when we need to access them.
The formation of memory can seem complicated, and the belief by many now is that the ability to form new memories can be impacted by how much sleep a person gets each night.
Can a Memory Last a Lifetime?
Memories can be stored for many years to come, however, the amount of time it stays in our awareness varies greatly depending on many things, including the type of memory, memory consolidation, and if a person is getting healthy sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation leaves the mind struggling to properly encode and store memories — meaning they do not “stick” in our minds, and cannot last.
Short-term memories allow the brain to hold information without manipulating it. The information is in an active state, and readily available for a short amount of time — often only within our awareness for up to 30 seconds or less. Our short-term memory allows the brain the ability to remember something that is currently being done, such as remembering a phone number recently recited. This type of memory is extremely important in regards to learning and memory.
Long-term memories mostly lie outside of current awareness, essentially in the back of the mind until it is thought about or needed to be accessed. These memories can be held for days, months, or years — sometimes indefinitely. For example, you may have a long-term memory of something that occurred during childhood, and be able to recall the information into late adulthood.
Types of Memory
Memory consolidation depends on the type of memory and where it must be stored within the brain. Current research suggests there are two common types of memory: declarative and procedural.
Declarative memories, also referred to as explicit memories, are made of fact-based information, such as a state capital, someone’s name, or other facts you know to be true. These memories are a type of long-term memory, and are stored in the temporal lobe, until they are needed. Slow-wave sleep is crucial for this type of memory to be processed and stored away.
Procedural memory is stored in the cerebellum, and are skill-based memories, such as remembering how to ride a bicycle. REM sleep plays a major role in procedural memory consolidation; therefore, a person must receive quality sleep for these memories to be correctly stored.
According to information from Harvard Health Publishing /Harvard Medical School, most experts recommend the average adult should be sleeping at least 7-9 hours per night. Throughout the night, the brain cycles through at least four sleep stages in a single night. The first two sleep stages are light NREM sleep, followed by deep NREM, or slow-wave sleep, and the fourth stage is REM sleep.
During slow-wave sleep, the brain can sort through all of the information learned throughout the day to either store the important things, or trash what does not need to be remembered. Once it has completed sorting and storing through slow wave sleep, it can prepare itself to learn all new information the next day.
Through the fourth sleep stage, REM sleep, dreaming occurs. The thalamus becomes extremely active n this deep sleep stage, allowing your mind to interpret the stored information. This is often why we dream of things we have previously done, and made memories of.
What is Sleep’s Role in Memory?
The relationship between sleep and memory is a complicated one, but sleep plays a critical role in declarative memory consolidation, procedural learning, and memory processing. Quality sleep helps the brain to process information that it has absorbed throughout the day, as well as prepares the brain to learn new things the following day.
Sleep allows many things to occur including:
Do you have a big test coming up? Maybe an important meeting at work? A good night’s sleep improves the ability to recall information previously learned. Memories strengthen, and are stored more efficiently if adequate sleep occurs between learning and the important upcoming event, such as a test or presentation.
Motor memories are a type of procedural memory. These types of memories allow us to remember skills, such as riding a bicycle, or throwing a ball. To achieve stronger skill-based memories, we must receive quality sleep —even if it is light sleep during an afternoon nap.
Sleep helps a person make sound decisions throughout the day. REM sleep allows the brain to think creatively to solve problems. It is often why we wake to feel innovative and ready for new creative tasks.
Learning New Things
Growing up and through adulthood, we learn new things all the time, but often never think of just how we can remember the things we have learned. According to current research, sleep controls learning and memory. You can learn new things every day, but without the ability to store the information, it is as if you never learned it. A good night’s rest allows our mind to store information and retrieve it at a later time when we wish to use it.
Memory Impairment or Loss
Without enough sleep, or being sleep deprived, the brain becomes foggy, leaving one to make poor decisions they would not normally make. While forgetfulness is a common thing that occurs at random, sleep deprivation equates to memory consolidation problems and memory loss, as the brain is unable to store memories. Memory loss can be the result of the brain “losing” the memory, or simply a lack of sleep leaving the mind unable to properly store the information, making it irretrievable. Once a memory is lost, it often cannot be regained.
Tips to Build a Better Memory
The ability to learn and form new memories relies greatly on receiving adequate sleep night after night. While you may think your memory is pretty good already, it could be significantly improved by following a few sleep tips and tricks — who would not love having remembering to be a bit easier?
Write Things Down
Are you on an important phone call, and need to remember what is said? Maybe you are multitasking, and need to remember multiple things at once — write it down! The act of taking pen to paper has been proven to help implant information into the brain as a memory. Not only can it help build a better memory, but it also serves as a reference to go back to later.
Repeat the Information
Repetitive learning aids memory recall, and helps encode information past the short-term memory. Whether you repeat the information quietly in your mind, out loud, or by continually writing it — repetition has proven to help the learning process.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep specialists report the average adult should be getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night. When the body does not get enough sleep, it essentially goes into panic mode, and leaves you to feel a bit groggy, or unable to focus as usual. If you find you are having increasing difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, over-the-counter or prescription sleep medicine could be what you need.
Exercise Your Brain
Playing brain games is not only fun, but can help to improve cognitive abiltiy. Crossword puzzles are the gold standard, but word-recall games, Scrabble, Hangman, and Tetris can also help. Today, there are loads of mobile apps dedicated to memory training, which are excellent ways to strengthen memory. Since these apps are on your phone, they are portable, which means you can strengthen your memory while waiting in a doctors office, for example.
See a Doctor
Do you suspect that you suffer from a sleep disorder, such sleep apnea or insomnia? If you experience chronic sleep disturbances, it may be time to reach out to your primary care physician for a consultation and further testing as recommended.
Sleep disorders affect our ability to get a good night’s rest, leaving us feeling overly exhausted the next day. Treatment for sleep disorders can range from meditation, yoga, sleep medicine, or even a sleep device, depending on your test results and doctor’s recommendations.
Upgrade Your Bedding
As previously mentioned, sleep plays a crucial role in memory. As a result, sleeping on a low-quality mattress can interfere with your sleep throughout the night, leaving you to wake frequently, and unable to cycle through light sleep, deep NREM sleep, and rem sleep cycles.
PlushBeds offers many mattress options, including natural latex, memory foam, or even a latex mattress topper to make your current bedding more comfortable. At PlushBeds, we strive to provide a comfortable, safe, and healthy sleep oasis for sleepers by producing bedding products with unmatched quality and purity standards.
Healthy sleep is vital in allowing the mind to consolidate and store procedural and declarative memory, as well as allowing you to retrieve previously learned things at a later date. As you sleep, your mind goes through several cycles of light sleep, deep sleep, rem sleep, and NREM sleep allowing for all three major roles of memory to occur.
It is important you get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep, as new research suggests is the minimum hours of sleep that allows for optimal brain and body function. If you are experiencing an increase in forgetfulness, or find yourself unable to sleep, contact your primary care physician for a consultation and next steps.
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