Won’t it be great if you can improve memory while you sleep?
No more all-nighters, over-time at work, or hitting the books late into the night.
Well, we have good news for you.
According to neuroscience, sleep is a much better alternative for improving memory compared to any of the above.
Have you ever spent all night cramming for exams only to find you can’t remember anything the next morning?
Or failed to sleep the night before a big work presentation and found yourself clumsy and dazed the following day?
Neuroscientists would tell you that this is because sleep is essential to better learning, memory, and even judgment and motor skills.
Let’s take a look at how you improve memory while you sleep.
The 3 Functions That Need to Happen to Form Memories
For your brain to form memories, three things need to happen
- Acquisition – the process of receiving and learning new information
- Consolidation – the process of storing this information by converting it from short-term to long-term memory
- Recall – the process of retrieving information stored in your brain
Scientists believe that, for the most part, acquisition and recall happen when we are awake.
But for decades, there has been more and more research supporting how memory consolidation happens when we are asleep.
What Happens in the Brain When We Sleep?
Researchers have consistently found that after a night’s rest, or even a nap, people perform better mentally and physically.
You do better in tests, at work, at physical activities ranging from using fine motor skills to athletic performance.
This is because while we sleep, memory consolidation occurs.
Scientists believe that while we sleep, the hippocampus and neocortex, involved in long-term memory formation, are active.
The hippocampus relays the day’s memories, including new experiences, knowledge, and skills, to the neocortex.
The neocortex replays these memories, processes them and converts them into long-term memory.
This process not only involves learning new things but also building on existing knowledge and memories.
Different stages of sleep help consolidate different types of memories.
For example, deep sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS) consolidates declarative or fact-based memory.
Declarative memory includes pieces of factual knowledge, like dates, names, definitions, etc.
So, if you have a big test coming up, you benefit from a good night’s rest with uninterrupted deep sleep.
It helps you remember facts far better than pulling an all-nighter because the brain has had the chance to consolidate your memory.
On the other hand, Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep helps cement procedural memory.
Procedural memory helps you remember how to do things, like riding a bike, typing out words, shoot hoops, etc.
It’s associated with our fine motor skills and senses.
So, you can see why, if you haven’t slept enough or slept well, you can be clumsy, confused, and generally unable to learn or recall information.
How Does the Brain Change During Sleep?
We’ve discussed the roles the hippocampus and the neocortex play in consolidating memory while we sleep.
To answer the question “Can you improve memory while you sleep” better, let’s look at the process even more closely.
Memory consolidation involves converting short-term memory to long-term memory.
Forming long-term memory changes the structure of your brain.
Your neurons create new circuits and build up existing ones, as new memories form, and older ones get updates.
Not only does this process store information retained during the day before, but it also prepares the brain to recall this information the following day.
Recall further builds up the neural connections associated with that particular memory.
As neuroscientist Vince Clark points out, once the brain encodes information, it’s tough to forget.
This is why people who get short-term amnesia may lose their short-term memories, while their consolidated long-term memory is untouched.
But for this long-term retention to occur, sleep is essential.
According to a 2018 study, just one night of sleep loss causes a build-up of beta-amyloid, a waste product, in the brain.
This waste product can impair the activities of different parts of the brain involved in long-term memory processing and consolidation, like the amygdalae.
Amygdalae not only play a role in memory and learning but also regulate mood and emotion, especially strong emotions like anxiety, sadness, and fear.
Studies show that people who sleep well are better able to process emotional events than those who are don’t.
Excessive sleep disruption is also dire for long-term brain functioning.
Lack of deep sleep and disrupted NREM sleep can contribute to difficulties in forming memories for Alzheimer’s patients.
Can We Enhance Memory Consolidation During Sleep Further?
It turns out – we can.
The sleeping brain provides the perfect conditions to consolidate memory without the interference of external stimuli.
But, as neuroscientists at the University of New Mexico find, some external stimuli while we are asleep can actually enhance memory consolidation.
Elise Hu, as part of the Future You program, walks us through it by trying it out herself.
First, she takes a mental task in the form of a virtual reality game and then goes to sleep for the night in a small bedroom set-up at the lab.
The following morning, she plays the game again, and the researchers record her performance.
That night, she plays the game again with a “brain bonnet” on.
The electrodes detect when she’s in deep sleep and play back the frequency of her slow-wave oscillations.
The following morning, after she plays the game again, the data shows how Elise performed better the second time.
How Does This Work?
The slow-wave oscillations during deep sleep help the brain to encode long-term memories.
Neuroscientists find that by recording these oscillations and then stimulating the brain during deep sleep with them, memory consolidation improves.
Brain cells receive stimulation during sleep by transcranial Alternating-Current Stimulation (tACS).
The researchers play back the same frequency of slow-wave oscillations detected when the subject is in deep sleep.
After testing in controlled environments with hundreds of subjects, researchers conclude that this external stimulus improves memory consolidation.
Even though Elise isn’t able to explain how she performed better, the learning happened.
The stimulation improved her memory generalization by helping her subconsciously retaining the pattern of the game she had been playing while asleep.
The consolidated memory of this pattern helped her perform better the following morning.
This study definitively answers the question, “Can you improve memory while you sleep?”
The answer, of course, is a big yes.
And, fortunately, you don’t need to stick a bunch of electrodes on your head to improve memory while you sleep either.
How Can You Improve Memory While You Sleep?
Not only is sleep important, but the right sort of sleep is also vital to consolidate different types of memory.
Nowadays, with how fast-paced life is, getting a full night’s rest is a luxury.
But better sleep equals better memory and improved likelihoods of avoiding degenerative brain conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
So, we owe ourselves good sleep whenever we can get some.
These are some of the ways you can get better sleep, and therefore improve memory while you sleep:
1. Put the Phone Away
Our smartphones are like an extension of our bodies for many of us.
But thank God it’s a detachable one because taking your phone to bed is terrible for getting a good night’s rest.
The blue light coming off the screen tricks your brain into thinking it’s day time.
The brain thinks it needs to be on high alert.
So, even if you’re tired and you put your phone away after some scrolling, you can’t doze off.
The closer it gets to bedtime, the less you should be using your devices.
Use yellow filters for your phone, tablets, and laptop since these are easier on the eyes.
More importantly, the brain associates yellow and orange lights with dusk and, therefore, rest.
So, setting your phone and other devices on a timer that automatically switches to yellow light as evening approaches also helps you prepare for better sleep.
Plus, the bedroom should be a place your brain subconsciously associates with sleep.
As much as possible, don’t bring work there!
2. Use Mood Lighting
Using the right sort of lighting isn’t only pleasant for ambiance.
It also helps keep your body clock on track.
As we explained earlier, the brain interprets blue and white light to mean that it’s daytime and, therefore, time for the brain to work.
Yellow and orange light, which are closer to sunset, allow the brain to relax.
So, switch out any bright lights for soft, ambient yellow and orange lamps, especially in your bedroom, to keep your circadian rhythms on track.
3. Work Out During the Day
Working out has tons of benefits when it comes to enhancing memory.
Exercise helps pump more blood and oxygen to your brain and maintains the health of your neurons.
Working out is actually associated with growing the size of your hippocampus, which, as you know, plays a significant role in long-term memory creation.
The increased physical activity also pumps your body full of endorphins.
Endorphins can put you in a good mood, make you feel lighter and less tense, or stressed.
They work on the amygdalae and help reduce feelings of anxiety or stress.
Working out thus has multi-fold benefits.
You enhance the parts of your brain involved in memory consolidation.
You also physically tire yourself out enough to go to sleep comfortably.
4. Avoid Stimulants and Meals Right Before Bedtime
As tempting as another cup of coffee might sound before you hit the sack, don’t give in to the urge.
After all, we use coffee to fuel ourselves to power through the rest of the day.
Having some later in the evening would be counterintuitive to the goal of getting proper sleep.
Avoid midnight snacking, refined sugar, caffeinated drinks, and liquor right before bedtime.
Save these treats for earlier in the evening!
If you’re planning on a heavy meal, make sure you eat 3 to 4 hours before you plan to go to bed.
If your body is working hard to digest a big meal, it can disrupt sleep if you go to bed just then.
5. White Noise
Maybe you live close to the main intersection or the highway, and the noises from busy streets keep you up.
Maybe you share the place with your family or flatmates who don’t have the same sleep schedule as you.
Use a white noise app or device to help block out any other sounds.
The low hum of the ambient noise can help you drift off to sleep easier.
Soft instrumentals and white noise without any speech is a better alternative for sleep.
It helps ensure your brain isn’t trying to decipher the sounds as something meaningful as you’re trying to doze off.
6. Maintain a Healthy Sleep Schedule
We’ve already talked about how late nights working are counter-productive to improving memory.
Similarly, sleeping in too late or taking frequent naps in a day can be counter-productive, also.
As tempting as it might be to roll around in bed on weekends or crash into the bed as soon as you get home from class, try not to.
Go to bed and wake up in the mornings at relatively similar times.
This prevents you from confusing your body clock, which can go haywire if you have irregular sleeping patterns.
A messed-up body clock is usually the reason you sometimes can’t go to sleep no matter how tired you are.
As we learn more and more about the relationship between the brain and sleep, we get a better understanding of the question, “Can you improve memory while you sleep?”
Not only can better sleep improve memory, but sleep is also essential for long-term memory to form.
Now I’d like to hear back from you!
Have I convinced you to do away with the all-nighters, and sneak in some 30-minute naps during busy days?
Have I answered your questions about can you improve memory while you sleep?
Do let me know!
Pat Wyman is a learning expert, university instructor, best-selling author and the CEO of HowtoLearn.com. She invites you to take the free Learning Styles Quiz on the home page.
Her courses, Total Recall Learning™ for Students, Total Recall Learning for Professionals™, Total Recall Speed Reading™and Total Recall Memory™ have benefited over half a million learners with higher grades, increased productivity and the ability to know how to read faster, learn and remember anything.
She’s worked with people in such corporations as Microsoft, Raychem and Sandvine and has won several life-time achievement awards for her work. Pat is a mom, golden retriever lover and big time San Francisco Giants fan! Come on by if you’re ever at a Giant’s game and she’ll welcome you with open arms.