If you’ve ever woken up grumpy and confused, you won’t be surprised that David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia concluded from his research that people waking from a deep sleep couldn’t solve simple mathematical problems.
He called this phenomenon, “sleep inertia”, but it’s possible that the bad temper is more to do with which point in the sleep cycle you wake up from, because now it’s thought that crankiness is more common when waking during the REM part of the cycle, the dreaming part.
It’s thought the dreams are important for processing emotions we experience during the day and it’s been described as an “overnight therapy” by Matt Walker, a psychologist at the University of Berkeley, California.
But what’s this got to do with memory?
It has been suggested that while we sleep, short-term “working memory” are moved from the hippocampus to the cortex where they are stored as steadier, long-term memories. It is also thought that we conduct “virtual” practising of newly learned skills while we sleep.
So it’s probable that the different stages of sleep are important for different sorts of memory. What’s probably most important to us with regard to revising for exams and the quest for better grades, is knowing that facts and figures are processed and stored during the deep slow wave sleep stage of the sleep cycle.
Is there a way to prolong the deep slow wave sleep and will that help us to have better memories?
One option it would seem, according to Jan Born at Lubeck University, is to connect the scalp to an electrical current while you sleep. But in the absence of detailed instructions I would suggest we leave this one to the professionals!
Alternatives seem to be rather thin on the ground unfortunately and research is still in its infancy. However we do know that some antidepressants reduce the length and quality of slow-wave sleep, so avoiding those and getting off them as fast as is sensible would seem a good idea. And remember a physician will have prescribed them for you, so make sure the physician supervises your withdrawal, and only if that’s appropriate for you.
And as far as the quest goes, one thing we do know, is that we get more REM sleep early in the morning, and that’s where having a lie-in might improve your memory and get you better grades in your exams. Sounds easy enough and can’t do you any harm, unless of course, it makes you late for work.
Otherwise – it’s got to be worth a shot!