Memories are something that many of us fear losing: traditional family recipes or the first time you went out on a date—everything has a sentimental value that deserves a place in your memory. Think of the times you’ve flicked through old photos and spent the next few minutes or hours running through all the past memories; it’s a great feeling.
Due to our hectic lifestyles and multitasking schedules we’ve inadvertently lost the ability to remember things, but there is a saviour and few acknowledge the power of it. Sleep, alongside food and water, is one of the most essential parts of your life. An essential tool in recovery from a day’s worth of gruelling tasks, sleep has a sensationally brilliant effect on your memory storage and recalling abilities. We spend a third of our lives sleeping—by the age of 60 you would have slept a total of 20 years, so it’s important that you’re using that time effectively right?
To use it effectively, you need to understand the powers and capabilities you can unleash, try it tonight and chances are you’ll wake up with a number of new memories stored.
So, let’s look at how to improve your memory with sleep:
In order to improve both cognitive and muscle memory, the general guideline is to practice, practice, and practice some more. We assume that if we spend 1 or more hours going through the motions then the process will be stored into our memory bank.
This is true to an extent: Let’s say that you’ve got an important business meeting coming up that will require you to pitch from memory. Most people will walk around running through the slides for hours on end hoping that they remember everything and miss nothing.
The problem will be that only certain key stats and figures will be stored; in order to remember everything you’ll need to sleep on it. This is when the power of REM sleep (see further down) takes over and begins to rehearse the motions during your sleep.
Research shows that the if a memory has a higher value placed onto it, such as money-related tasks, the more likely it is to be rehearsed and stored in our memory bank during sleep. So how can you improve your chances of storing the pitch to your memory? Sleep on it.
Stress Free Problem Solving
Stressful situations release hormones into your body – notably cortisol, which, when large amounts are released, not only causes cognitive damage but also impairs the hippocampus (located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain) and its ability to store and recall memories. Excess cortisol leaves the body in a constant physiological arousal, the stress will then begin to activate our fight-or-flight responses which during pro-longed periods of stress can begin to impair our cognitive abilities.
When we sleep we go into the “safe zone”, which then drastically lowers chemicals in our body associated with stress. Memories can now be effectively rehearsed during periods of REM sleep, which will have a far higher chance of being stored in the long-term memory bank.
REM Sleep (Rapid Eye Movement)
To fully maximise the benefits and effects of sleep and improving our memories, we need to ensure we go through all the stages of REM sleep. Generally REM sleep occupies 20-25% of an adults total sleep, which equates to 90-120 minutes. We generally go through REM four to five times during a sleep cycle, with it generally being shorter at the beginning of the night and longer towards the end.
Stages of REM Sleep:
- Stage 1 is when we close our eyes—this stage lasts between 5 and 10 minutes, during which we can be easily awoken.
- Stage 2 is when our body begins to produce positive and negative waves, with the heart rate slowing and body temperature dropping, preparing to go into deep sleep.
- Stages 3 & 4 are the deep sleep stages, also known as slow-wave sleep.
Each of these stages has a responsibility for our process of learning and memory storage. Some are good for creating and remembering new habits, others are good for retaining new facts you’ve learned, whilst others are used for building the understanding of relationships with the new found facts.
Some stages of learning during sleep are most notably effective at the end of the cycle, so when you’re doing research on how to improve your memory, it’s vital to understand that a full night of uninterrupted sleep is essentially the reason why you’ll store something or throw it away.