Like food, water and oxygen, your body needs regular sleep in order to function. And to function at your best, you probably need eight to eight and a half hours of zzzs a night. Many of us get by on much less sleep than this (and some people claim to only need around five hours a night) but medical science suggests that by depriving ourselves of sleep, we are also negatively affecting our ability to perform mentally and physically in a number of ways.
For example, after a week of cutting your sleep times by just one hour, to seven hours a night instead of eight, your brain starts to have difficulty performing tasks that require you to concentrate on several tasks at the same time. Consequently the less sleep you get over time, the more difficult it becomes to perform complex tasks. Driving is a good example of this, and many people are now aware that driving whilst sleepy increases their likelihood of having a car accident. If your sleep deprivation is extreme for example as little as three hours per night your likelihood of crashing is even higher, since you lose the ability to simultaneously concentrate on objects in both your peripheral and central vision.
Aside from giving you the energy to keep powering through the day, performing all the varied mental and physical activities that make up your daily life, sleep is also important because it helps you process information. While you’re off in the land of nod, your brain is busy consolidating memory so that it’s available for you to use when you’re awake.
New research now shows that going without sleep (and consequently depriving your brain of this important processing time) may impact on the way you access newly learnt information.
Researchers in Belgium asked volunteers to study a computerised model of a town for half an hour, and then find certain locations within it. While these tasks were performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) allowed the scientists to measure which parts of their brains the volunteers were using.
That same night, half the subjects went home to sleep as normal, whilst the other half stayed up all night at the lab. All the volunteers then had two nights of normal sleep before coming back to the lab to perform the tests again.
Although those who were sleep-deprived had similar test scores to those who’d slept after they’d learnt the new information, the MRI scanning showed that they were using different parts of their brain to navigate to the locations they’d been asked to find. Importantly, those who’d had lots of sleep had more activity in a part of their brains called the caudate nucleus a region that is involved in automatic processing. This indicates that knowledge of the town’s layout had become more ingrained or automatic in those who’d had plenty of sleep and that those who’d been sleep deprived were having to rely on other mental processes in order to find their way around.
So, what does all this mean for you? In a nutshell, if you’re planning on staying up late to study, you’ll probably do all right in your exam. But if you really want to learn the material and incorporate it into your brain so it becomes second nature, then you’ll probably be better off making sure you get enough sleep!
Source: www.blackmores.com.au and also see our article on choosing a mattress.
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