Sleep critical to good brain function

Our culture looks down on sleeping. It can’t stand downtime. Who hasn’t heard someone brag, “I pulled an all-nighter.”

The National Sleep Foundation reported that 67% of Americans are sleep-deprived. Some 40% of Americans sleep less than 7 hours a night and 70% sleep less than 8 hours. Generally we are sleeping 45 minutes less than a generation ago each night.

No one sleeps as soundly as my dog, Gabi

Sleep-impaired judgments and performance are as disabling as alcohol. Look at the famous news stories about air-traffic controllers falling asleep on the job. I wrote about sleep deprivation previously.

The brain doesn’t turn off during sleep. It takes in information all day and stores it. At night during sleep the brain makes structural changes.

Professor Robert Stickgold from Harvard Medical School set up groups of participants to learn the puzzle game Tetris. Many had dreams of Tetris squares falling. He concluded that the study helped show how the dream mind helps us to learn and integrate new information. We do not improve playing Tetris unless we go to sleep. Groups did not improve as the day went on. When they slept and played the game the next day though they had improved. Dreams then help us to integrate new information. They help us formulate new rules and to analyze the game in detail. We make connections and we form insights.

In the Optimizing Brain Fitness course I took, Dr. Richard Restak of George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences said during sleep the brain plays the same patterns of activity that are involved in learning during the day. The more learned during the day, the more replayed at night.

Consolidation of the information is needed for learning. This fixes the memories. Initial consolidation takes about 6 hours so it is best not to take-up new activities in that time frame. As the saying goes, ‘sleep on it.’ Your brain circuits will do the work.

Also during sleep enhancement takes place. Enhancement is the improvement of what you have learned. This is called the off-line effect. You can improve your learning by scheduling sleep.

Tennis players and other athletes know the ‘overpracticed effect.’ The best thing to do in that situation is to stop practicing and return after a night’s sleep. This effect is a result of the fatigue of relevant neurons and circuits. They will be refreshed by sleep.

So, forget that all-nighter. Hit the sack.



Filed under aging, brain, relaxation, sleep

6 responses to “Sleep critical to good brain function

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  5. Oh the irony of reading about sleep deprivation at 3 in the morning… Good read all the same.


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