Students often skimp on their sleep in their attempts to balance school and personal life, regardless of whether that personal life is filled with parties, or with work and family responsibilities. Missing an hour or two of sleep, or even an entire night, may seem minor, especially while we’re young, but is it?
Researchers have recently reported a number of consequences resulting from missed sleep, some long-term, others more immediate. Of particular interest to students is the research related to the relationship between sleep, creativity, and memory.
“There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.
Jessica Payne, Ph.D., is a cognitive psychology researcher and assistant professor at Notre Dame, who “lectures on the neuroscience of leadership decisions, how small breaks from work (which she calls “sleep proxies”) can improve memory, and the role of sleep in performance.” While Payne’s lectures are directed at business leadership, the principles she holds critical apply to everyone; we all need good sleep, moderate stress, and a positive emotional state to be optimally productive and creative. (Quinn, for SmartPlanet)
Writing for Psychology Today, Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress, reports on the benefits of rest, both sleep and naps, for helping people to learn and to solve problems in “Sleep for Success: Creativity and the Neuroscience of Slumber.” According to Cantor, researchers have discovered that during those times in sleep when our brains are active, they are more active immediately following a learning experience; “if you learn something and then sleep on it, what you’ve learned becomes clearer just as a function of sleeping. But what’s even more interesting is that sleeping on a problem helps people find better solutions, … ‘setting the stage for the emergence of insight.'”
Another aspect of the role sleep plays is in the formation of memories. According to “Why Sleep is Necessary to Form Memories” (Science Daily), sleep actually changes our brains on a cellular level, and it is these neurochemical changes that allow us to form the synaptic links between neurons required for memory. Another Science Daily article, “People Learn While They Sleep, Study Suggests,” quotes Kimberly Fenn, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University who is the lead researcher for another sleep study, as saying, “There is substantial evidence that during sleep, your brain is processing information without your awareness and this ability may contribute to memory in a waking state.” While the impact of more sleep varies from individual to individual, Fenn concludes, “Simply improving your sleep could potentially improve your performance in the classroom.”