There’s a test coming up and you barely have any time to study, first instinct is to pull an all nighter. Well you’re not alone, at the University of Cincinnati a survey found that 60% of college students have pulled an all nighter. It’s common knowledge that without sleep it’s harder to concentrate and learn new things, yet pulling an all nighter or staying up really late to finish studying can seem like the best option. This made me question how the brain stores memory and if pulling an all nighter is really that bad.
I found that there are two main stages of sleep, slow wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM). There are also two main categories of memory; declarative (factual memories) and procedural (ability to remember how to perform certain actions or skills). Sleep is essential because it quiets mental and behavioral stimuli; therefore, the less sleep time you have (or sleep in a certain stage) can make it difficult for your brain to consolidate new memories. I was able to find a couple of studies that show a correlation between sleep deprivation and a decrease in accuracy and memory retention.
One study measured the correlation between amount of sleep time and performance accuracy. The first was a computerized finger tapping test. Researchers found that there wasn’t any improvement, in the participant’s accuracy of pressing key sequences, 12hrs after they woke up. However, there was a 19-21% improvement in performance when the participants slept right after they learned and for those who slept for up to 12hrs after they were taught the sequence. The results had a P value of 0.01, which means that the null hypothesis can be rejected and, therefore, something is going on.
Another 3 day study measured participants ability to remember two short stories after being given different amounts of sleep. In the experiment, 20 participants were given two short stories that they were tested on in the morning of the 3rd day. On the first night the participants were either interrupted during stage 4, interrupted during REM sleep or given a full night’s sleep. Both groups were given a full night’s sleep the second day. Then on the third day they were tested on the stories. The results show that those who were disrupted during REM sleep did worse. This is interesting because REM sleep is only 20-25% of your total sleep time, so it can be assumed that it’s an important part of sleep for absorbing memories. Since there aren’t many subsequent studies, this result can be due to chance, but it still provides an incentive for us to get a full night’s sleep.
Therefore, a full night’s sleep is important for the consolidation of memories, however, another component of an all nighter is your ability to function during the day.
An additional study tested participants ability to learn after being sleep deprived. One group was allowed to sleep normally (control group) and the other group was deprived of sleep for a night (experimental). The group that was sleep deprived had a 40% reduced ability to learn new information the next day than the control group. This shows that the results can be due to chance and if there is a difference, it is not a big one. However, the experimental group also showed less hippocampal activity (the hippocampus allows you to make new memories), which researchers describe can be linked to an inability to learn new information.
The studies have not been on a large scale as some have a group of 20 participants and others don’t say the amount of people they used in the study. This limits the degree the results can be used toward a valid conclusion since experiments performed on a larger scale allow for more concrete results. Also the age groups of the participants weren’t mentioned either, which makes me question whether the consolidation of memory can be differ with age.
Despite this, the results give us enough certainty to determine that staying up all night to study will not only make you perform worse in the morning, but it will also set you up for not being able to absorb what you are learning the next day. So pulling an all nighter should not be your go to solution for an upcoming test.