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Good Sleep And Its Role In Academic Success

To thrive academically, kids of all ages are expected to be full of energy, be able to focus for extended periods of time, have strong memories and be creative problem solvers. Students all across the globe often wish that there was a miracle drug that they could take to improve their memory, boost their creativity and help them feel less stressed.

This drug does indeed exist, and it comes in a form often overlooked. Sleep!

Here are a few ways that sleep can influence academic success:

Sleep and memory

According to Dr. Philip Alapat of the Harris Health Sleep Disorders Center, when an individual is well rested their ability to concentrate and their memory recall significantly improve.

Lack of sleep affects students’ ability to learn in an effective and productive manner. Students are more likely to have a shorter attention span and experience a lack of focus when they are tired. The reason being that while two of the three learning stages – acquisition and recall – only ever take place while we are awake, consolidation of memories happens during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

The learning process occurs in three stages – acquisition, consolidation and recall. The acquisition phase is when the brain encounters new information. The information is then reinforced in the memory during the consolidation phase. During the REM phase of a sleep cycle, the neural pathways are strengthened and unnecessary information is cleared out.  Finally, recall takes place when the information is accessed at a later stage.

Stress hormones that are usually reduced while asleep can also prevent the consolidation of short-term memories. Even after staying up all night studying, students often find themselves having trouble holding onto thoughts and sometimes perform even worse than usual.

purple and pink plasma ball

Photo by Hal Gatewood

Sleep and creative problem solving

Going to sleep when you want to come up with new ideas may seem counterintuitive, but research suggests that you should do just that! A rested brain functions more efficiently. It also appears that the time spent sleeping isn’t only used to rest, but to work through problems and come up with creative solutions to them. Many scientists have spoken about how their best ideas came to them in a dream or just as they woke up.

In his book Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck wrote that it is common for a problem that one finds difficult at night to be resolved in the morning “after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Lots of research supports the notion that sleep increases creativity. In one study by Wagner and colleagues, participants were given a laborious number task designed to be time-consuming. After the participants were introduced to the task half of them remained awake for eight hours, while the other half slept for eight hours. What they didn’t know was that there was a hidden method built into the task that would hasten their progress if they could figure it out. After the eight hours were up, they all continued working on the task. The results speak for themselves. Sixty percent of the group that slept discovered the hidden strategy, while only twenty-three percent of the group that stayed awake were able to figure it out.

The researchers consequently drew the conclusion that the participants’ brains mentally restructured the information they had learned as they slept. The result was the production of new and imaginative solutions. In other words, information becomes clear and easier to understand when you sleep on it. Sleeping allows your brain time to be more creative and come up with innovative solutions to problems.

All of this is great news for students, who are constantly being introduced to new content and information. Having trouble understanding a new concept? Try reading through it before bed and you just might have a flash of genius and see it from a new perspective in the morning.

Sleep and stress

Stress and sleep have a relationship comparable to a two-way street. Higher levels of stress can make sleeping more difficult while sleeping properly can help reduce the consequences of stress.

Most students and those around them don’t need a research study to tell them that a lack of sleep can negatively affect mood. The repercussions are quite clear: irritability, fatigue and an inescapable daze that can last the whole day.

There is a chain of reaction chemicals that when produced make us feel stressed. The first hormone released by the brain in called CRH. The CRH hormone signals the pituitary gland to produce the next link in the reaction, a chemical called ACTH. ACTH prompts the adrenal gland to release adrenaline and other stress hormones.  Luckily, this chain can potentially be interrupted.

So what exactly happens while we sleep that plays such a big role in determining mood and stress levels?

Yet again, the REM stage of sleep is the hero sent to save us. REM sleep is the time in which dreams occur, and it is also when levels of stress hormones are decreased. So, an easy way to prevent this chain reaction of stress hormones is to have a good night’s sleep. There is evidence that suggests that the same brain chemical that helps bring about deep sleep also triggers the pituitary gland to decrease the production of ACTH. The outcome of this is that the adrenal gland doesn’t receive the signal to produce stress hormones, and the body is able to rest peacefully.

In short, while our bodies are in the REM sleep phase, the brain shuts down or at least slows the production of stress chemicals as it processes the day’s emotional experiences in the form of dreams. As a result, in times of great stress – which for students seems to be all the time – scheduling adequate time to sleep should be first on the list of priorities.

With all that said and done, it is obvious that sleep is vital if students want to thrive in academic environments. What may not be as clear is what to do with this information. How can one, students in particular, improve their quality of sleep? There is one easy to rectify situation that can be looked into:

man wearing white top using MacBook

Photo by Tim Gouw

The main culprit of difficulty sleeping these days, specifically students, is exposure to blue light just before sleep.

The use of cell phones, laptops and tablets seems unavoidable in this day and age. With the vital role the digital world plays in homework and assignments, more and more children are found spending hours staring at a screen. Providing multitudes of information that help children in their studies, technology has a vital role to play. However, the negative effects on sleep quality are becoming more apparent: blue-light emitted from the screens of electronics can interfere with the release of Melatonin when used too close to bedtime.

Thankfully, there are easy ways to continue to sample the knowledge that the world wide web provides, while still enjoying a restful sleep. For example, it can be a good idea for students to get into the habit of turning all their devices off an hour before bed. An even easier solution is to download an app that blocks blue-light. Perfect for those days when every teacher has given out tons of homework due the next day and it simply isn’t possible to shut down a whole hour before bed, these apps make sure that students will still be able to savour a good night’s sleep.

Information is spreading at a faster rate than ever before, thanks to the internet. Hopefully, we will soon see an increase in students who use this knowledge to their advantage and give rise to a well-rested wave of super achievers!