Rub Some Dirt on It: Studying, one nap at a time

February 4, 2010

For most college students, sleep looks like a poor substitute compared to caffeine. Sleeping wastes precious time, and unlike sipping from a coffee cup, sleeping isn’t an acceptable option in class, even in those huge lectures. It often seems lavish and lazy to spend hours asleep, when you could be getting that paper assignment out of the way, or making extra time later in the week to hang out with friends. All those hours of doing nothing can be difficult to justify.

And yet, those seemingly empty hours may just be the most active hours of your day. You may be under the impression that most of the learning you do takes place in the classroom, in that little cubicle in Lau, and during those long hours of staring blankly at your computer screen or at the ten pound textbook splayed across your lap. But, in fact, a lot of your learning takes place while you’re fast asleep. Ever wonder why babies spend so much of their day slumbering, or why kindergarten kids get nap time and you don’t? It is partly because they are acquiring, processing, and consolidating new information and knowledge at a much faster rate than you are, and all that sleep is helping them to do it.

That’s right—sleep is hard work too, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The type of memory that you tackle in your sleep is aptly termed consolidation memory. Consolidation is the process by which all of the knowledge you acquired during the day becomes stable and sticks. It gets cemented and solidified, so hopefully it will stay somewhere in there for the next time you need to pull it back out.

While you’re asleep, devoid of all thoughts and worries, your neurons are free to get to work. They work to strengthen the neural connections that help form and solidify our memories. They set up a network of links and cross wiring between each other. The flow of traffic between related neurons is what allows us to recall information we acquire in the recent past. So while you may remember when the Crimean War began a few hours after an all-nighter studying for a history exam, by the next evening, you will likely have to start over again to refresh your memory. It simply isn’t efficient, and you’ll be too tired to concentrate on the exam once it rolls around.

So how much sleep do you really need anyway? How long does it take your brain to consolidate? This is one of those instances in which quality is more important than quantity, so it varies depending on who you are, and how good of a sleeper you are. For the average person, eight hours is recommended. So put your notes away, shut down your computer, turn off the lights, and give your body a break while you put your mind to work.

Feeling brain-drained? Curl up in bed next to Sadaf at squreshi@georgetownvoice.com


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