“Memory is all we are. Moments and feelings, captured in amber, strung on filaments of reason. Take a man’s memories and you take all of him.” Mark Lawrence, King of Thorns
Sleep Deprivation and Memory Loss
If we are the sum of our memories, the loss of them can be devastating. Memory loss is attributed to a number of conditions such as age, Alzheimer’s, injury, and illness, but the one cause that we have some control over is our sleep.
Studies show that sleep deprivation diminishes cognitive abilities because the brain minimizes clutter and maximizes memory when you’re sleeping. Without sleep, the brain just can’t function properly, and the longer you go without enough sleep the worse it gets. Exhaustion interferes with coordination, balance, and decision-making capacity.
How it works
If you’re going to compare the central nervous system to anything, it would be a highway…a very busy highway. Every waking moment requires brain activity, and at the end of the day your brain is simply exhausted from that non-stop, hour after hour business of processing information. A major component of your brain activity is the synapses that serve as the lanes of communication that help retain all that information collected during the day.
New research that studies brain fatigue works around a theory called “synaptic homeostasis.” The theory’s basis is that sleep acts like a filter that weeds out and discards excess information and allows those busy synapses to relax. While some neurons rest, new communication lanes are created and long-term memories are stored. By the next morning the brain is refreshed and ready to start a new day. It makes sense–the only decent time for repairs to a highway or a nervous system is during a time when traffic is at its lowest.
Lack of sleep means no rest for the old synapses and no new synapses to pick up and help carry the load. That impairs overall cognitive function, including concentration, the ability to learn new things, and short-term and long-term memory. Decision-making suffers and creativity is stifled. Even emotions are affected, which can cause mood swings and a short temper.
If you go long enough without sleep, you can start having hallucinations! For people who have narcolepsy or a condition called systemic lupus erythematosus, the potential for hallucinations from sleep deprivation doubles. People diagnosed with manic depression can end up with mania if they go sleepless too long. Additionally, sleep deprivation increases the risk of depression, suicidal thoughts, impulsive behavior and paranoia.
Let’s face it–without adequate sleep, your thought processes become muddled, your reasoning is reduced, and even your fine motor skills are mired because of inability to focus.
Making memories while avoiding sleep deprivation and memory loss
Memories come in different forms. Fact-based memories deal with things like remembering the names of former presidents and all the states. Episodic memories come from life events, such as a marriage proposal or when you attended the prom. Instructional or procedural memories are attached to things such as how to do math problems, play a guitar, or how to swim.
Memories develop from three steps that must occur:
- When you learn or experience something new it is “acquisition.”
- When a memory is stabilized in the brain it is “consolidation.”
- Finally, when you’re able to access the memory later, it is “recall.”
Only when you’re awake can acquisition and recall occur. Studies indicate that consolidation only occurs during sleep, no matter which memory type it is. When you’re really tired and don’t get enough sleep, it’s difficult for your brain to absorb and recall anything new.
It isn’t known, yet, exactly how sleep augments memory, but it seems to revolve around the brain’s neocortex and hippocampus, which are where the brain stores long-term memories. It’s believed that when you’re asleep, the hippocampus repeats the day’s events for the neocortex, where the memories are reviewed and processed. That helps the memories to become long-term.
Another interesting area of research is the study of how the various stages of sleep affect the generation of certain memory types. Some memories are stabilized when you dream during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Other memories are secured during the period of slow-wave, very deep sleep. There are a good many questions still to be answered.
Save your memories!
The point is we know that sleep is an important factor in terms of both short-term and long-term memory. No matter what your age, those memories are a basic part of who you are. Children need memory to learn and progress. Adults need memory to function and have a good quality of life. Seniors need memory to hold close what life has been for them. You don’t want to squander those memories!
Strive for decent sleep by following steps recommended by the experts. We’ve covered these before, but let’s reiterate:
- Set up a sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time, as that sets your body’s internal clock.
- Be selective with food. If you’re hungry or stuffed when you go to bed, it will fool with your sleep, so be cautious with amounts and don’t eat too late. Limit beverages to avoid bathroom trips.
- Develop a bedtime ritual. Pick what works for you—a book, a bath, or calming music. However, no electronic devices!
- Make your room right for sleep. The best conditions are cool, dark, and quiet. A good mattress and pillow help.
- Love your pets, but if they disrupt your sleep, make them stay in their own beds!
Remember, your memories are too important to ignore how sleep deprivation can affect them.
“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” J.M. Barrie