Mr. Sandman and the hippocampus

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Your eyes snap open and you feel an immediate rush of adrenaline surge through your body like a misguided thunderbolt. “How long have I been asleep?” you think to yourself. As you glance around your bed, still groggy and unable to focus on anything too far away, you notice how little of your comforter is exposed under the familiar array of textbooks, pens, crumpled papers, and pages of notes scarred with various colours of highlighter. A half-eaten piece of cold Hawaiian pizza lays stuck to the outer thigh of your jeans. The clock says 1:45 a.m., and a little mental math tells you there is less than seven hours until exam time. Looks like you’re going to pull another all-nighter in the name of higher education and getting good grades. Or are you?

The art of studying

Cramming for a test is not an unfamiliar concept in the world of academics. Most of us started doing it way back in the old high school days. We attended class regularly, with maybe the odd day at home either sick or playing video games. We tried to take notes in class, and then we forgot all about the lesson until the night before a big test. That night we would stay up reading and re-reading notes, catching up on all the textbook articles, and we would maybe even have a few fellow students over to study with. There would have been plenty of pop, chips, and candy to keep us focused and, more importantly, awake. As one final attempt, when we finally did hit the sack, we would slide our books under our pillow and hope that osmosis would take over. The next day we would sit down to write the test, and flip the booklet confidently open to the first page. Question number one: I have no idea!

We have been taught, from the very beginning of grade school, that the key to success on tests and exams is to find an effective study method. A few of the most common study techniques are flash cards, re-writing notes, reading and re-reading notes and articles, study groups, and discussion. Even though all of these ideas are completely effective, new studies conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), are now showing that it’s not just your study methods that will help you get the grade, but also your sleep habits. A few recent studies have started to shed some light on the idea that staying up all night and cramming for a test can actually be counterintuitive to that end goal of getting an “A.” These studies concluded that no matter how long a student studied for, if they didn’t get an adequate amount of sleep, they retained less information than students who studied for less time but got more sleep.

Putting the ‘hip’ in hippocampus

Last year, researchers at UCLA published the findings of a study conducted on 535 students from Grades 9 to 12, from various backgrounds and different high schools. For two weeks, the subjects in the study documented into journals how long they studied for, the length of time they slept, if they had problems understanding something that was taught in class, and if they did poorly on exams and tests. Researchers were fully expecting the findings to show that not getting enough sleep would affect how well the subjects did on tests, but they were surprised to find that subjects getting inadequate Zs actually did worse, despite more study time. Andrew J. Fuligni, professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioural sciences and senior scientist at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, who conducted the study, deduced that it is counterproductive to sleep less in the name of more study time.

A similar study was done by Mayank R. Mehta, a professor of neurophysics in UCLA’s departments of neurology, neurobiology, and physics and astronomy, and was published in the online version of the journal Nature Neuroscience, on Oct. 7, 2012. The article discusses how sleep memory is strongly linked to the neurological communication that happens between the primary parts of the brain and how they “talk” when we are asleep. Mehta and his team studied the brains of mice while sensors were hooked up to three parts of the brain.

The study simultaneously measured the activities of single neurons between the three main parts of the brain that are directly related to the formation of memory: the neocortex, which is dubbed the “new brain,” or the most recently developed area of the brain; the hippocampus, or the “old brain,” the part of the brain that, up until recently, researchers had thought was responsible for creating and reinforcing memory during sleep; and the entorhinal cortex, also viewed as the middleman of the brain, which helps to connect the new and old brains and assists them in working together more effectively. Researchers were previously aware that the “new” and “old” parts of the brain retained memories during our sleep cycle, but this information took an exciting turn upon discovering the role that the entorhinal part of the brain plays in cementing and enhancing memories while we sleep. Even when the mice were under anesthesia, with no sensory input in the form of smell, hearing, or the ability to feel anything, the entorhinal cortex still behaved as if it were remembering.

Memorization is key

The study highlights the fact that the different parts of our brain actually communicate more effectively once we are asleep, which helps us to better retain information that we initially learned during the day. It seems when we learn something new, the brain then goes over and over it during our sleep and commits it to memory. So, if we are not giving our brain adequate amounts of time to rev up its memory-making abilities, the memories simply won’t stick.

Think of it along the lines of playing a song on the piano. When we play a song we are, to a certain extent, training our fingers to know exactly where the right keys are. After a couple of times playing the song, you may find that your fingers instinctively know what the next key will be. It’s the same when it comes to studying: you read some material that you want to remember, and then you make sure you get at least eight hours of restful sleep. While you are sleeping, your brain plays what you read over and over, committing the ideas to memory. When you don’t get enough sleep, the different parts of the brain do not function adequately and memories become patchy and have holes in them. This ultimately results in being able to remember parts of what you learned, but not full concepts.

Of course, the entire issue needs to be considered in terms of individuals weighing the need for sleep against the demands of their busy lives. This is a time in our lives when fast food is cooking, beer is a substitute for water (and considered a food group as well), and sleep is nothing but a dream. So how realistic is it that your brain is going to be having intelligent conversations with itself at night? It is probably going to have to come down to priorities. Students are over-scheduled these days, with the impossible task of trying to fit school, friends, activities, work, and sleep into a 24-hour window. For many, sleep is the last priority on the list. Many of us feel fine when we run on five to six hours sleep, and if we don’t feel exhausted or cranky, we think there aren’t any negative effects. But I think if we asked our brains, they might tell us something very different.

I know I hate it when people tell me I have to get more sleep, when what I want to do is the complete opposite. But do you want to spend the next four years feeling like the walking dead and barely passing your classes, or do you want to breeze through school while snuggled up in your favourite blanket? There’s probably a bit of a compromise to be found here, such as making sure to focus on sleep a few days before a test or exam, and choosing more effective study times. Do we want to be able to go to work, ace all our papers and tests, be part of school clubs and committees, be on sports teams, and still go party it up on the weekends? Sure we do, but the problem of time remains—there simply isn’t enough of it to make everything we want to do a reality. Making smart choices on how you spend your waking hours could ensure you get enough sleep.

Remember, sleep is not a luxury—it’s actually a means to long-term good health.

Tips on how to get a better sleep

  • Here are a few suggestions on creating better habits and ensuring a regular good night’s sleep:
  • Create an environment conducive to sleep. Ideally this would be a dark room with a consistent temperature that’s not too warm and not too cold. Nice bedding can help too, since the more comfortable and content you are, the better shut-eye you will get.
  • Try to maintain a regular bedtime and wake-up schedule and stick to it all week. Believe it or not, as wonderful as it feels to sleep in on weekends, it can actually mess with your sleeping rhythm.
  • Lights out means lights out. Shut off any light sources such as computer monitors, nightlights, and hallway lights, and make sure there are no blinking clocks. Black out the room with curtains or a sheet blind on the windows.
  • Make sure your cellphone is set on silent. You don’t need to answer a text at 2 a.m. In fact, it can be fun to respond early in the morning when you awake fresh from a good night’s sleep. It’s only fair right? They weren’t concerned that you might have been sleeping in the wee hours, so why should you be concerned about waking them in the early morning? Some smartphones have a do-not-disturb setting in which the alarm still works.
  • Shut computers and other electronics off about an hour before bed—electronics stimulate the brain. Try to limit stimulation as much as you can, so your brain settles down and has time to unwind before you hit the hay.
  • Avoid ingesting stimulants too close to bedtime. This includes nicotine and caffeine. And yes, avoid alcohol too. I know it’s tough! But it’s all about maintaining your eye on the prize. A bender every now and then is no big deal if you’re being good the rest of the time.
  • The bed area should only be used for two things: sleep and sex. Avoid doing anything that requires complex thought once you’re in bed. Some light reading is okay, but intricate puzzles or anything that gets the brainwaves going, should be avoided. Also, having a television in the bedroom, as wonderful as falling asleep to some mindless show may be, can cause disruptions in your sleep pattern.
  • Avoid eating three hours before bed. Since the student diet can consist of fast food and frozen meals, it’s a good idea to avoid eating too close to bedtime. This gives your digestive system time to relax, so you won’t be woken up in the middle of the night by a lot of loud noises and potential trips to the bathroom.
  • If you have problems winding down once in bed, consider having a warm bath before you snuggle in for the night. Add a few drops of lavender essential oil to the water and even rub some on your hands and swipe it across your pillow to add the scent to your linens.
  • Exercise, exercise, and, oh yeah, exercise. No one is suggesting that you sign up for an expensive membership and become a gym rat. Honestly, who has the time or the money? But doing a simple thing like leaving your house a little earlier and walking to and from school or work could be the answer.