Sleep and Memory: Building Bridges

By Emma Forbes

One of the worst habits people can have when trying to learn something is to cram in too much information at once. Whether it’s cramming for an important exam, learning a new language or memorizing a speech, most of us feel pressed for time and try to jam too much information into our brains. Sometimes, even if we have more reasonable study habits it may be difficult to recall the information we are working so hard to acquire. Recent research has shown that there are crucial links between sleep and memory.

Sleep and Memory

Most of us have experienced the effects of sleep deprivation. Just missing out on one sleep cycle can leave you feeling forgetful and unfocused. People who experience chronic sleep disruptions can be just as impaired as someone who has been drinking alcohol.

While we sleep, our brain processes information that it received the day before. If we are trying to learn a new skill or concept, sleep is crucial for our brains to develop neural pathways to cement this knowledge in place. However, if we miss out on quality sleep our brains do not get the chance to fully retain the information.


Consolidation is the term that is used to describe the process the brain undergoes when retaining information. Just as a lack of sleep will make us forgetful, quality sleep has been shown to have great effects on cognitive function and memory. This is why it is seen as counterproductive to “cram” for an exam. Often times, students will spend a few caffeine-fueled nights before a test in a desperate attempt to learn everything they can about a subject. Not only will this make the test taker unfocused and sleepy on test day, but it is also less likely that the information will be retained.

Students are not the only ones affected by consolidation. Individuals who are learning new skills that require physical movements will learn these skills easier and faster if they are getting adequate sleep. This includes athletes and tradesmen.

Information Retention

As we have said, sleep is crucial for learning new skills or ideas. The key is to avoid situations where you feel rushed to learn your material. The best way to do this is to set regular study times and learn the material in smaller chunks.  And then repeat, repeat, repeat until the material becomes second nature.