Do you want to do better in your classes and come up with clever solutions to common problems? Would you like to be calmer when someone crosses the line? Can you do this in the privacy of your own home? For free? Yes, you can. After tinkering with our brains for millions of years, nature has developed just such a process.
During this mysterious process, billions of your brain cells oscillate together in rhythms, some slow and some fast. Multiple layers of the brain obey the beat of a deep-seated conductor, the whole working to achieve a smarter, more serene you. This magical orchestration allows different neural circuits to reset themselves, lay down new, stronger cables, to splice and prune neuronal networks, and lay pathways for speedy thought. What is this mysterious and miraculous process called? Sleep. Natural, non-drug enhanced, luxuriously languorous sleep.
Do you know that birds rehearse their songs as they sleep? Nightly, little finches silently replay bird songs over and over again -- polishing their daily warbles until it is deemed up to snuff! So too, do humans. Violinists practice the violin as they sleep and dancers glide on ghostly feet. Surfer dudes ride the big wave out safely in sleep, infinitesimally moving a muscle here and there to make the next day's surfing better. Jack Nicklaus went through a rough patch of golf until he dreamt of holding the club a little differently and voila! Problem solved. And some of us will continue to play Tetris or troll Facebook in our sleep, if that is mostly what we do when awake.
How do scientists know this? Because they have measured activity in different nerve cells while our finch is singing and while she's sleeping. They wake up student volunteers who spent all day playing Tetris just as they start dreaming. Et cetera. You get the point. So we have it on good evidence that sleep is important for laying down the days' memories, for forming habits and for learning in general.
The optimal way for students to pass exams would be to study daily and then sleep well. If you are the cramming sort, go ahead, but make sure to sandwich a nice, long sleep session between the cram session and the examination. This type of sleep helps consolidate all those bytes of information and occurs best with natural sleep. What this means, kids, is that sleep induced by hypnotics and prescription medications does not replicate the architecture of natural sleep, which is the optimal state for memory consolidation.
Want to be a creative thinker? First, work on the problem and immerse yourself in it. Then, fall asleep. Freidrich Kekule inadvertently and famously discovered this. Kekule and his 19th century chemists wrestled with the structure of benzene until Kekule fell asleep to dream of a snake eating its own tail. He then realized that the benzene molecule was ring shaped. If sleep helps straight-laced, inorganic chemists think laterally, think what it can do for Madison Avenue copy writers!
It helps, of course, to be passionate about something. If you are a perfectly nice sort of fellow and can really sleep well, sleep may make you a mellow Rip Van Winkle sort in the Hudson Valley but not a Yo-Yo Ma in Carnegie Hall. Even so, sleep, to paraphrase the US Army, helps all of us be the best we can be.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? The right answer is with practice and sleep, practice and sleep, practice and sleep.
Why then, this modern aversion to sleep? Why do people equate sleep with sloth? Is a good eight to nine hours of sleep a night a waste of time or is it necessary, essential even, for us to function more efficiently? Winston Churchill, no shirker by anyone's standards, weighed in with his opinion, stating "Don't think you will be doing less work because you sleep ... that's a foolish notion ... you will be able to accomplish more." Even Thomas Edison, who publicly disdained long periods of sleep and was big on short daytime naps, was, to surmise from his diary jottings, a restful night-time sleep enthusiast.
Sadly, for adolescents and young adults, there is a cultural stigma against those who turn in at eight or nine PM. Aside from the pressure of school work, socializing often begins at this time and those who opt to sleep in may lose out. Confronted with this dilemma, most students sacrifice sleep, unknowingly exacerbating the situation. Furthermore, adolescents may be more susceptible to the mood altering effects of chronic sleep deprivation. Those who get less than the required nine hours of sleep, yes, nine hours, are more prone to depression and suicidal thoughts. Interestingly (and reassuringly), surveys reveal that adolescents generally conform to curfew times set by their parents. Good sleep habits may therefore be molded by parents, helping their children reap a lifetime of benefits.
I am here to champion the cause of sleep, a maligned yet crucial restorative and regenerative brain function. As an avowed sleepaholic with eight to 10 hours of sleep under my belt most days, I can personally attest that sleep has helped me become more proficient and mentally resourceful. I recommend it highly. Good night and sleep tight!
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