Sean Drummond from the University of California, San Diego, points out that staying awake for 21 hours reduces your level of ability to that when you’re drunk! While many of us may not stay awake for 21 hours in one stretch, how many of us have had two or three late nights and early mornings on the trot? Because that has the same effect!
Conversely, people sleeping an extra hour or two perform much better than they normally do in tasks needing sustained attention, such as taking an exam.
And of course, being able to concentrate harder means that your overall mental performance is better. If you’re able to boost your power of attention, everything else improves too.
You need good quality sleep to allow your brain to process new memories and to practice new skills. Your brain even solves problems for you while you’re asleep. So if you’re trying to learn some new information as you do when you revise, try studying for a couple of hours, taking regular breaks during that time, and then going to sleep. You’d be better off doing that than slogging through the night.
Because, while you’re asleep your brain continues to work for you, reactivating the circuits it was using when you were studying and moving those new memories into long-term storage.
That means that the next day all that information will be there for you – you’ll have a better memory for what you’re trying to recall.
Of course if you’re trying to revise for an exam it’s very important to revisit that information the next day after you’ve slept on it or pretty soon you’ll forget it anyway.
Carlyle Smith of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, is one of the many advocates of taking a nap after training of any sort and points out that as well as helping you develop a better memory for your studies, it applies to any skills, such as learning to play a new videogame, playing the piano, driving the car and playing tennis.
There are other benefits too. You can solve problems and have flashes of insight in your sleep. The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev purportedly created the structure of the periodic table in a dream after spending all day struggling with how it all fitted together.
And, as the story goes, in 1862, Here Kekulé woke up from a daydream in which he saw a snake biting its own tail forming a continuous circle, and realised that this must be the shape of a benzene molecule, the very problem he’d been challenged by for some time previously. This lends weight to the contention that in some circumstances at least, imagination is more important than knowledge.
So, if you want to develop a better memory and get the most out of your brain; if you’re revising for exams and want to give yourself the best chance of remembering what you’ve studied, all the research points towards the benefits of shorter bouts of revision, punctuated by regular naps.
The perfect excuse for sleeping on the job if ever I heard one!