SLEEP, LEARNING, & MEMORY FOR TEENS

A Sleep-Deprivation Epidemic

Teenagers aren’t known for their stellar sleep habits. Many adolescents stay up all night or sleep all day, or act like they haven’t slept for weeks even when they’ve gotten enough rest. Thanks to an abundance of sleep research, we now know that dramatic changes to sleep cycles and habits are normal during the teen years. Unfortunately, these perfectly natural changes can seriously disrupt the quantity and quality of sleep teens are able to get. According to the director of Stanford University’s Children’s Health Sleep Center, the growing problem of sleep deprivation in industrialized nations is most acute among teens.

Sleep & the Teenage Brain

You may have heard that teenagers need more sleep, but it’s not just because their bodies are growing. At the same time as their bones and muscles are developing, so are their brains. It’s during sleep that new memories are synthesized and the meaningless information is filtered out. That’s why cramming for tests is a bad idea. It robs the brain of the downtime required to process and absorb the information. More importantly, sleep is the brain’s opportunity to take out the trash. Sleep is so restorative because it activates a whole different functional state. According to a study at the University of Rochester Medical Center, the brain’s plumbing “pumps cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) through the brain’s tissue, flushing waste back into the circulatory system where it eventually makes its way to the general blood circulation system and, ultimately, the liver.” When there’s not enough time to complete this process, toxins can build up in the brain and impact performance.

Learning + Sleep = Memory

Acquiring new knowledge starts with the encoding of sensory and motor experiences. Students are bombarded with information during the day, but experience and exposure aren’t enough to build memories. Another process needs to take place in order for the fragile initial awareness to be encoded and stored for the long term. It’s during sleep that new information gets filtered, organized, and stored as lasting knowledge. For this reason, learning is enforced by sleep and inhibited by sleep deprivation. The first night after the day of learning seems to be the most important, although the process of organizing new knowledge can take longer.

Performance & Problem-Solving

Athletes know all too well that rest is crucial to achieving optimal performance. Students expected to perform in non-sports-related ways could benefit by planning sleep into their overall schedules. Just adding naps can help students get better results from the time they invest in studying or practice. As though sleep wasn’t already important enough, it also enables us to find creative solutions to complex problems. It’s the time when new links are formed between neuronal networks in the brain. Since problem-solving is a key part of performance in school, this is just another of the many reasons that adequate sleep is crucial for teens.

Setting the Stage for Sleep

Just like studying, getting great sleep requires more than just putting in the time. Teens need the right circumstances for restorative sleep. If your growing teen is still sleeping on a single mattress, an upgrade to a full or larger will do a body (and a brain) good. By investing in a high-quality, supportive sleep surface now, you’ll improve their chances at adequate sleep. You’ll also reduce the chance that they’ll choose their first mattress poorly by doing it all on their own. Talk to your teen about how well and how much they’re sleeping. Do what you can to support healthy sleep habits. In the end, getting enough sleep is one factor of success that’s relatively easy to control.

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