I’ve always thought that studying during the day was the best time to study—I’m awake and alert and can focus on my work pretty well. There have been studies, though, that prove night time studying—or studying right before you fall asleep—are the most beneficial times to study.
An article published by Dr. Jessica D. Payne in 2011 hypothesized that nighttime studying was the best time to study. The article explains that there are two steps towards remembering something: the encoding of the information in our memory and the consolidation of information in our memory. Encoding happens when a piece of information is constructed with the goal of being stored in our brain so we remember it and can recall it at a later point. Memory consolidation, on the other hand, is the stabilization of new information in long-term memory and is essential to remembering facts in the long-term.
This is where sleep plays a crucial part in our memories. According to her research, Dr. Payne said that sleep helps to consolidate memories. In fact, it may be the best thing we can do to consolidate them. She said that learning new skills are learned slowly over time and not learned all at once during the studying period, and sleep helps with consolidating these new skills. You can’t just sit down and learn something that takes time and is complicated in one night. Your brain needs time to let all of the information sink in until you can really say you’ve learned it. As shown in the article, sleep can recreate and re-solidify these memories differently than when we learned them, which can help us remember them better in the long run.
A study published by Dr. Payne and six other scientists outline an experiment they did which supports the hypothesis that sleep helps consolidate memories.
The participants in this observational study were given word pairs to study and were tested 30 minutes, 12 hours and 24 hours later with several training and retesting intervals throughout that time. It looked like this:
It was found that participants who studied at 9pm and then went to sleep performed much better on the test they took twelve hours later than the other participants who either took the test directly after they studied, or studied a full 24 hours before they took the test.
The findings of this study agreed with the null hypothesis that sleeping right after studying helps consolidate memories and will therefore help you to do better on tests. According to the null hypothesis, the mechanism is pretty straight forward: sleep is what makes our memories consolidate.
If this hypothesis turned out the be wrong, the results might actually yield a false positive. If the results showed that studying at night proved to be no less beneficial or even less beneficial than studying during the day, the the null hypothesis would turn into an alternative hypothesis. This alternative hypothesis would state that studying at night has to positive effect on overall learning and memorization of the subject being studied.
Sleep is invaluable, not only because the health benefits it provides, but also because our brains need a rest to process everything that we are learning. Of course, this probably isn’t an excuse to stay up late to study and only get a few hours of sleep because of the sleep we actually need to help process what we just learned, but it’s amazing what our brains can actually do when we let them work.