Do you ever wonder how important sleep is for our mental health? Sleep is one of the first things we sacrifice when assignments pile up or deadlines approach. Being reasonable people, however, we bargain with ourselves; once this (and that) is done, we will finally rest and catch up on missed sleep. Unfortunately, our time asleep is not a resource that can be managed in this way. We should be especially concerned with the damage caused by a lack of sleep. The damage is both mental and physical, short and long term.
Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” has changed my attitude towards sleep. Its message is simple: seven to eight hours a night is, for better or for worse, non-negotiable. Walker’s mission is to convince people that, far from being spent unproductively, the hours we spend sleeping are among the most useful of our lives. The benefits of sleep are incontrovertible and especially relevant for students. A full night’s sleep before we learn new things allows the brain to transfer memories from its limited, short-term site (the hippocampus) to more permanent locations.
Sleep time brainwave activity known as “sleep spindles” that take place during NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement; a largely dreamless phase of sleep that occurs mostly earlier in the night) ensure that the well-rested mind awakens primed to absorb new information. The same process the night after learning helps the mind to “solidify new memories.” The effect is dramatic: new information learned is recalled up to 40% more effectively after a full night’s sleep. This means that late night cramming before an exam or forcing ourselves to read just one more article is far less likely to be decisive than we think.
Plentiful REM sleep (which takes place mostly during the later stages of sleep and is when most of our dreaming occurs) also primes our minds for the creative challenges that face us daily. Every discipline calls for creative and lateral thinking. Dreaming allows the mind to relive memories and experiences, sometimes in strange ways, allowing the brain to make novel connections observe commonalities from our daytime existence. Language-learning benefits especially from this in-built pattern-finding, as can be seen from toddlers and young children, whose extremely REM-rich sleep lets them learn complex grammatical rules without being explicitly taught. Walker likens this nightly journey through our memory’s archives as the creation of a “Mind Wide Web” that helps us solve the problems of our time awake.
Ample REM sleep also helps to bolster our emotional resilience. Sleep is the “stoic sentinel that guards your sanity and emotional well-being” – a sort of internal overnight therapy that set us up to weather the trials of the day ahead. Experiencing again our daytime experiences removes the “painful sting” of trying and traumatic memories, allowing us to wake restored and with resolution.
“Why We Sleep” provides a wealth of fascinating and useful facts about sleep. As Walker notes in his TED talk on this subject (“Sleep is your superpower”) sleep is “your life support system, and it is Mother Nature’s best effort yet at immortality.” Sleep helps us function in the short term, but also allows our bodies and minds to perform essential nightly maintenance that equally helps us to flourish in the long-term. For everyone – especially students – our eight hours of sleep should be a jealously guarded time. It is not a luxury and we should not feel guilty for our time asleep.