What does poor sleep in college really do for you?

Free at last.  That's the way many college students feel.  But along with that new found freedom comes a need to be ever more vigilant about one's own health and habits.  Sleep is the secret to memory recall.  Sleep.  Dream.  Ace that test.


College is a time of freedom, exploration and learning to become an independent adult.  For those who attend college away from home, you are now master of your own decisions.  You get to decide what you are going to do and when.

Most students soon realize that the academic rigor of college is exponentially greater than high school.   There is so much to learn and too little time.  So how do you to accommodate all of your new responsibilities?  Naturally you sleep less.

When you have competing demands like two projects due on one day and multiple quizzes later in the week, perhaps the easiest approach is to focus on one assignment at a time and give that effort 200%.  Unfortunately that 200% often means late night studying and pulling all-nighters.

This leads college students as a whole as an extremely sleep-deprived community.  For some, college can be a time of practicing some of the unhealthiest habits of a lifetime.

When it comes to the all-nighter, what seems to make sense for cramming in high volumes of information, actually works the opposite in helping one remember that information.

The ability to remember new information, also known as “memory consolidation,” occurs during sleep.  Think of daytime class attendance as gathering goods that are then dumped off at a warehouse at the end of the day.  Then when you sleep, the night crew comes in and sorts all of the boxes and data you provided.  When you wake in the morning, you have all of your information neatly filed away and organized by the night crew.  This organization is critical for you to be able to retrieve information when you need it.

When you decrease the amount of time you sleep, you don’t leave enough time for the night crew (the brain) to file away the information.  You then wake only being able to retrieve the data that was processed and the other is still sitting in boxes on the warehouse floor.

Add alcohol to the mix and you really shut down the factory.  Since alcohol breaks up your sleep and decreases slow wave sleep, this would be equivalent to the warehouse workers taking too many smoke breaks instead of working.  They may be present in the factory and clocking the time, but they are not efficient in their work to file away your data.

What’s the “take away,” message here? 

Sleep.

It is essential for consolidating memories and helping you ace your tests.  You also need sleep for better analytic skills in writing papers.  Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you are benefitting from pulling all-nighters to finish your work.