09/09/2010 08:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Your Performance And The Freshman 8

Only 11 percent of American college students report that they sleep well. Forty percent say that they feel well rested about two days a week. Seventy-three percent report experiencing "occasional" sleep issues. We are facing a sleepademic! Did you know that lack of both quantity and quality sleep can affect your memory?

Remember the Guitar Hero study I wrote about on Monday? So why will sleep get you a better score?

Insufficient sleep seems to affect the brain's ability to consolidate both factual information (declarative memory) and how to do certain tasks (procedural memory). But before we get too deep into these ideas lets go over some of the basics of learning:

The three processes of learning:

  1. Acquisition -- your brain gets new info and stores it as a memory
  2. Consolidation -- your brain connections are strengthened so your memory is in what scientists call a "stable" form
  3. Recall -- the brain pulls the info back out and uses the information in some meaningful way

So what does sleep have to do with learning and memory?

REM sleep (the stage where you are most likely to be dreaming) appears to be involved in:

  • Acquiring fact-based information (declarative memory), but only if the new fact is complex and emotionally charged, not if this information is simple and neutral.
  • Consolidating information on "how to do something" (procedural memory)
  • Certain types of visual learning

Slow wave sleep (the stages of sleep that make you feel refreshed) seem to be involved in:

  • Processing and consolidating this new factual information
  • Certain types of visual learning

Light sleep (stages one and two sleep) where your body is getting ready to go into the deep refreshing sleep) seem to be involved in just motor learning.

Poor sleep (not enough minutes and not the right amount of each stage) affects all three of the processes of learning -- and not in a good way.

When you are tired --

  • You cannot focus on new information to acquire it,
  • Tired neurons cannot strengthen the information to make it useful, and
  • A tired brain has an even more difficult time recalling the information.

Pulling an All-Nighter Is NOT All Right

Dr. Robert Stickgold at Harvard has discovered that the most critical period for sleep and memory consolidation is right after the acquisition of this new information. So pulling an "all nighter" will prevent this new information from locking into your brain and even further prevent recall when you need it most.

So if you learn a new riff on that guitar, sleep on it for a higher score and, who knows, maybe more fans! And if you want to learn and keep that information for your organic chem class, better to learn it and sleep than to stay up all night thinking it will be better "fresh" in your tired brain when you take that test.

But what if part of your college experience is athletics? Can sleep affect that type of performance, too?

Sleep and Sports Performance

There is consistent data to suggest that poor sleep affects reaction times and motor skills. Interested in shaving off an extra few seconds or hitting a personal goal? Getting your rest could be a surefire way to feel your best and perform even better. Specific skills that are affected by sleep:

  • Basketball: free-throw shooting
  • Baseball: pitching
  • Swimming: turn-times
  • Tennis: accuracy for serves

Also, when you have to travel across time zones to compete, there is some data to suggest that those with jet lag will perform worse, especially if already sleep deprived.

Are you more of a gym rat than a team person? Sleep can affect performance in this area as well. More specifically, poor sleep affects how difficult you perceive your exercise routine to be! Talk about demotivating.

Whether you are going for gold or just trying to remember what you ate for breakfast, sleep is critical. Remember everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep.

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