Study in Your Sleep
"You're supposed to be studying, not sleeping," the sales manager told me. I was a senior in college with two jobs and a car that needed repairs. I was either at work or in class from 8AM to midnight six days a week, and I was tired. My new job was to sell above-ground swimming pools, and there was an hour-long sales presentation we needed to memorize before we could go out on the sales floor.
"Sleep helps your mind process information," I told him. In truth I was just dead tired, but that didn't seem like nearly as good an excuse. "In that case I suppose you are ready for a run-through," he replied. I was, and I did, and he cut me some slack for the rest of the training. Eventually I became sales manager myself.
Although it was really just an excuse at the time, my statement was in fact true. Aside from sleep's other health benefits, a recent article in Psychology Today says "evidence suggests that we strengthen memories during sleep and do a kind of mental ‘rehearsal’ of skills we have learnt but not yet mastered." Furthermore, sleep deprivation has been linked to a temporary reduction in the size of the hippocampus, the organ in the brain associated with memory and special relationships.
Furthermore, according to an article in FastCompany as you learn new things the brain initially creates connections that are inefficient. During sleep, the pathways are made more efficient. Better still, you can influence what you want it to improve simply by thinking about it. "The synaptic connections you don't use... get marked for recycling. The ones you do use are the ones that get watered and oxygenated." It should come as little surprise, then, that in "Awaken the Giant Within" Tony Robbins suggests asking yourself "what did I learn today" each night. An advantage of this ritual, from a study perspective, is to help your brain focus on what you want to learn.
The Psychology Today article also notes that "peak cognitive alertness occurs roughly 2-4 hours after one wakes up. This can be an ideal time to read or write something complex." If your schedule is sufficiently flexible, you can try to do your studying during this time window. In fact, if you are really flexible you could break the study into two such windows separated by a nap.
This concept is further supported by an article in Science Daily that says: "Our results suggest that interleaving sleep between practice sessions leads to a twofold advantage, reducing the time spent relearning and ensuring a much better long-term retention than practice alone," explains psychological scientist Stephanie Mazza of the University of Lyon. "Previous research suggested that sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but now we show that sleeping between two learning sessions greatly improves such a strategy."
How do you know whether you are getting enough sleep? The best way may be to pay off your sleep debt by going to bed as soon as you feel tired, and sleeping until you wake up without an alarm clock. Just one day won't do it - you need to keep up the practice until you find a pattern of sleep, which will correspond to your natural pattern.
If you do try to incorporate sleep into your study plan, make sure it is productive sleep. Ambien and other prescription medications might make you unconscious, but this is not the same as sleeping. It is probably best to start with improving sleep hygiene, as reported in this article.
Should that fail, more natural solutions with which I have had some success include Natural Calm and Doc Parsley's Sleep Remedy. I have also been experimenting with the iterations of Steve Gibson's Healthy Sleep Formula, with varying degrees of success.
Have you slept your way through an important exam? Let me know in the comments.