Sleep Deprived: Effects on Memory

By M. Chris Wolf, PH.D.

Sleep deprived people don’t function well. People are sleeping less every year. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 63 percent of Americans report that they do not meet their need for sleep during a typical week.

It is well known that sleep deprived people have impaired memory.There is substantial research evidence that your brain is processing information without your awareness. This ability of the brain to process information is thought to contribute to your memory in a waking state. Specifically, sleep-dependent declarative memory (facts and knowledge) consolidation occurs when we are sleeping.

Also see the dangers of medications for sleep.

However, the research is not completely clear. For example we are not sure whether sleep deprivation effects working memory. Working memory refers to our temporary storage and manipulation of the information. This ability is necessary for such complex cognitive tasks as language comprehension, learning, and reasoning.

See Types of Memory

In a recent study of more than 250 people published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General , Michigan State University researchers Fenn and Hambrick (2011) suggest people derive vastly different effects from this "sleep memory" ability, with some memories improving dramatically and others not at all.

In an early study by Payne and Kesinger (2010) published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, scientists found that sleep helps consolidate memories by fixing them in the brain. Thus, we can retrieve memories later.

The above research suggested that sleep also helps us to reorganize memories, picking out the emotional details and reconfiguring the memories. The study suggested that this sleep helps us to produce new and creative ideas.

The above recent studies reinforced the results of the first study to show that sleep protects memories from interference. That study was reported by Jeffrey Ellenbogen, MD, with Harvard Medical School reported at the 2007 59th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. Simply put, sleep deprived people don't remember as much.

The research studies have provided important insights into how the sleeping brain interacts with memories: it appears to strengthen them. Perhaps, then, sleep disorders might worsen memory problems seen in people with dementia.

Consequently, it would appear that sleep hygiene or methods and procedures to help people sleep better will also have protective effects on memory. Perhaps the quote by the Dalai Lama says it best: “Sleep is the best meditation.”

Visit Sleep Deprivation - What to Do

What is Sleep Apnea?

See Sleep Apnea Cures

How to Get Better Sleep

For more information about this topic consider these resources:

Overcoming Insomnia: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach Workbook (Treatments That Work) [Paperback] Jack D. Edinger (Author), Colleen E. Carney (Author)

The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night's Sleep (Harvard Medical School Guides) [Paperback] Lawrence Epstein (Author), Steven Mardon (Author)

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