04/07/2011 07:59 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sleep Your Way to Better Memory

The routine of all-nighters is familiar to anyone through their own experiences in college or from TV and movies: it's the night before a big test, you realize you've never taken the plastic off the textbook, and you have nine hours to stay up all night and learn everything. Or maybe you need to stay up all night for a presentation at work?

Sounds fun, right? It turns out, however, that you may have been better off just going to sleep.

Well, sort of. We've known for a long time that quality sleep helps with good memory formation -- that's one of the reasons that pulling all-nighters in college is not a successful strategy.

Now a new study suggests that during sleep our brains actually choose to focus memory building on information it thinks will be important in the future. This tells us a few things:

  • We actually forget most of the information we process each day

  • We tend to remember things because we think they are important
  • The brain knows which pieces of information we consider important and highlights them for memory storage
  • A good night's sleep is a necessary step to really solidify information in our memory
  • There are some people with better memories than others, but even the mental athletes who win memory competitions know they won't do very well on a poor night's sleep!

    The brain is actually more active during sleep when you know you need to remember particular information. This is just one of the many active things the brain does while you're sleeping, and is one of the reasons why quality sleep is so important for everyone -- especially during early life, when the brain is rapidly maturing and highly changeable.

    Do you have a knack for remembering things? Or looking for a strategy to help remember something? If so, perhaps the best way to remember something is to tell yourself it is very important, decide you're going to test yourself on it the next day, and get a good night's sleep.

    For learners of all ages, this should mean the end of all-nighters -- and yet another reason why we can all benefit from a set bedtime.

    Sweet dreams,

    Michael J. Breus, Ph.D
    The Sleep Doctor™
    Everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep™