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The Science Behind Why Sleeping Helps Your Memory

You know that fuzzy feeling when you haven’t slept well the night before? That’s not just in your head, there’s a reason for the fuzz — and also why you can’t remember where you put your keys. It has to do with the way memories are made and stored. It turns out that sleep memories imprint one upon the other, so every time you remember something, it augments the original memory just a little bit. Those augmented memories are sorted out during sleep, consolidated, and then are available for recall the next day.

Sleep’s role in this process is just now being discovered, but these new insights could help scientists figure out cures for things like alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. It’s already known that a sleep disorders can lead to cognitive dysfunction, but with more study perhaps these diseases can be treated (or even partially cured) through something as simple as more sleep.

Sleep Makes Memories

So what do they know so far? Sleep is a vital component of making both the old and new versions of memories.

Dr. Scott Cairney of York’s Department of Psychology said, “Previous studies have shown sleep’s importance for memory. Our research takes this a step further by demonstrating that sleep strengthens both old and new versions of an experience, helping us to use our memories adaptively. In this way, sleep is allowing us to use our memory in the most efficient way possible, enabling us to update our knowledge of the world and to adapt our memories for future experiences.”

The experiments showed that those with a full night’s sleep not only had a quicker recall of their memories, they were also statistically proven to be more accurate than their less slept counterparts. This has to do with the brain’s retrieval of new and old information.

Sleep Protects Memories

Research author Gareth Gaskell thinks the study shows that sleep can have a protective effect on memory, acting as a pathway to the adaptive update of memories.

“For the sleep group, we found that sleep strengthened both their memory of the original location as well as the new location,” Gaskell says in an interview. “In this way, we were able to demonstrate that sleep benefits all the multiple representations of the same experience in our brain.”

This means that sleep science is a vital part of our cognitive functions. Not only is it helping us as we’re awake, it has interactions with the subconscious. These effects aren’t just psychosomatic, but are physically aided by the hormones that we replace during sleep. These hormones can repair and strengthen neurons, making us more likely to function at peak brain capacity during the day.

Obviously these studies are still new, and the results of these experiments may need larger control groups (the Yorkshire study utilized 90 pairs of people), but the initial ideas could be groundbreaking for sleep scientists. One thing that doesn’t take an experiment to realize: you feel better after a good night’s sleep. Try and get one tonight, your brain (and memory) will thank you.

 

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