How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect Memory?

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep And How Important It Is For The Brain

There’s a meme that has circulated social media and although it is meant to be funny, it couldn’t be any truer. The meme has the quote, “I regret every nap I passed up as a child”. How many feel that to their core? Parents, especially new parents understand that more than anything. Sleep is overlooked in youth and often scoffed at. Who needs sleep when there’s so much to do?! Sleep is just as important to the body and mind as eating is. Think of the three-year-old toddler that has a complete melt down in the store, and the mother turning a deep shade of red and all she can say is “He missed his nap”. Not only does missing sleep affect moods, it also can affect memory and memory recall.

Hard Work Lost

A college student sits up all night studying for the big exam. They grab an hour of sleep before the exam and run to the class. Feeling confident in their studies, the slide into the seat only to realize they cannot remember one thing they studied. Why is that? Not only does a good night’s rest allow the body to heal and recharge from the day, it also allows the brain the time to form memories and process the information it was subjected to throughout the day ( Without sleep, all the hard work of studying has now been thrown out the window to be lost on the wind.

Some may say that all that is needed is a good hot cup of coffee to wake the senses up. The caffeine in the coffee may wake the student up, but it does nothing to help with recalling memories. By not getting enough sleep, the result is impairing the persons ability to focus and essentially learn. Sleeping is imperative to make memories stick, or consolidate memories, so that they can be recalled in the future.

Scientifically Speaking

Scientifically, when an individual sleeps all areas of the brain are affected. From the hypothalamus being the peanut sized structure buried deep inside the brain, to the brain stem at the base of the brain, the thalamus acting as the relay center, to the pineal gland and basal forebrain. The one area of the brain that the focus on today is the cerebral cortex. This portion of the brain, which quite literally covers the brain entirely, is responsible for interpreting and processing information and turning it into memories ( The cerebral cortex receives images, sounds, and other sensations from the thalamus allowing dreams to be formed during REM sleep. REM sleep is the Rapid Eye Movement stage that is just that, the stage where the eyes are moving quite rapidly from side to side, this is when the majority of dreams are taking place.

The sleep stage that is necessary for the brain to get the most rest and allow it to recharge and consolidate the experiences from the day into memories is in the third stage of sleep. This is the deepest sleep when muscles are relaxed and is difficult to wake from. The brain slows down, breathing slows down, and even the heart beats slow down. This sleep typically happens in the first half of the night. This is the stage that is the goal for productive memory forming. Without this deep sleep, recollection of information and memories are difficult.

Lack of sleep affects the body as well as the brain. Hypertension, Diabetes and Depression are just three of the illnesses that can slow down blood flow to the brain. When the brain isn’t getting the proper amount of blood flow, oxygen and sugar become a factor. The ability to focus can then in turn cause additional problems such as lack of productivity at work and school. Not only does the health and wellness of the brain and body become affected, but so will the health and wellness of the professional and social sides of life.

A Bedtime Routine

So how does one make sure they are getting enough sleep and what exactly is the correct amount of sleep to be sure the brain is getting the rest it needs to recharge as well as form those necessary memories? Too much sleep can be just as detrimental to the body and brain as too little. What makes it “just right”? First and foremost, a set bedtime should be established ( Create a routine leading up to that bedtime that allows the body to begin to relax. A warm bath, read a book, listen to some soft music, but avoid blue light activity such as playing on a cell phone or watching television. The light tricks the brain into believing it is still daytime and doesn’t allow it to wind down.

The average person needs about 8 hours of sleep each night, though this number changes based on age. This allows all stages of sleep to be experienced and the brain and body to recharge. Most folks develop their bedtime routines based on their work or school schedules. Days that one does not have to go to work or school, a schedule should still be in place, staying up no later than an hour past normal bedtime and sleeping no later than an hour past normal rising time. This will allow the brain to keep on schedule and not work twice as hard at recovering at night.

It is not always easy to just wind down and go to sleep at night. Activities from the day may cause stress or excitement. It might help to go for an evening walk or light exercise such yoga to encourage the body and brain to relax. Don’t try to do too strenuous of exercise as this could result in the opposite effect. If falling asleep becomes too difficult, find a quiet space to read with a dim light.

Wind Down

Sleep is very important for the brain to properly function, whether it is to allow the individual to focus during the day or to recall memories from the day or even months or years before. The brain needs that time to collect the information and have it ready when recall is needed. Creating a bedtime routine to be sure the appropriate amount of time to sleep is available is a great first step towards memory recollection.


Image Credits:

Sleeping woman [ID 137788752 © Phoenix021 |]

Sleep and alarm clock [ID 139569197 © Iurii Golub |]