Written by Josh Horsman
Your brain never ever stops working. 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year, it performs seamlessly the limitless functions necessary to keep you alive and your body functioning as it should. That is a remarkable thought. But unfortunately, unlike your brain, your body does need to rest and that’s why good quality sleep is a vital component of a healthy lifestyle. In fact your brain counts on you sleeping as it uses the down time to perform other tasks that are not possible while you are awake. Tasks related to learning and memory, in particular, are key nocturnal activities for your brain.
When we are deprived of sleep, both our learning and memory are impaired because the brain has not had the down time it needs to perform these functions. But can sleep deprivation actually cause memory-loss?
There are actually three stages to the process of forming new memories. Firstly is the Acquisition stage where something new is learned or experienced. Secondly there is the Consolidation stage where the memory is stored in the brain, and thirdly is the Recall stage where the memory can be accessed in future. Being deprived of sleep can hinder all three of these processes:
Impaired concentration is a key symptom of fatigue, indeed it is one of the most common daytime issues reported by people with insomnia. If you find it difficult to concentrate your brain will struggle to take in new information and complete the ‘acquisition’ phase of memory creation.
Sleep is also crucial to the ‘consolidation’ phase. In fact, scientists believe that sleep is essential for the brain to consolidate memories. Researchers at UC Berkeley discovered important brain waves, sent only during sleep, which play a vital role in the storing of memories. They found that, in sleep deprived adults, memories can get stuck in the ‘hippocampus’ of the brain, where they are acquired and not reach the prefrontal cortex where they are consolidated and stored. This naturally prevents your brain from effectively committing new information learned each day to memory.
Finally sleep deprivation complicates the ‘recall’ function of memory, because your general cognitive function is slower when you are fatigued. This means that when you need to recall specific information or memories your brain has stored, your brain will take longer to do this and may not be able to recall all the information you need. This explains why people who stay up late cramming for tests often perform worse than those who got a full night’s sleep.
In summary, there are two main reasons you find it hard to remember things when you are sleep deprived. Either the memories were never properly formed and stored in the first place because a lack of sleep has prevented your brain from acquiring information or consolidating it, or fatigue is restricting your brain’s ability to access stored memories and recall information. The latter is more likely to be at play when it comes to long-term memories which appear to be suddenly forgotten.
It is important to follow health guidelines and aim for between 7 and 8 hours of sleep every night. Not only will this help your memory but it will ensure that your brain is performing all cognitive functions to maximum effectiveness. If getting enough sleep is something you struggle with, see our blog on getting the best possible night’s sleep!