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Do You Keep Forgetting Things? How Sleep Can Affect Your Memory

The quality of the sleep you’re getting (or lack thereof) affects how well your memory works. In this post, we dive into the power of sleep and its relationship with learning and memory.

Do You Keep Forgetting Things? How Sleep Can Affect Your Memory


Sleeping allows your body to rest and your brain to process and store memories.

Sleep deprivation directly affects your mood, focus, learning abilities, and memory recall.

If you find yourself unable to fall or stay asleep, listening to pink noise, avoiding alcohol close to bedtime, and using a weighted blanket can help remedy the restlessness.

Did you know?
Studies suggest that walking through a doorway triggers the brain to forget.

You’re standing in front of colleagues and top management for an important meeting at work. As you flip the control for the next slide of your presentation, you stand there, mortified. Your memory has failed you. You can’t understand or remember a single thing about this next slide. Yikes!

If you’re one to pull an all-nighter to prepare for a meeting or an exam, this could be a familiar scenario. What you don’t realize is that cheating on your sleep is the worst thing you can do for your memory.

Read on to understand the power of sleep and the role it plays in learning and memory.

Why Is Sleep Important?

It’s no secret that sleeping gives our bodies time to rest. It’s the time when your body repairs itself, your immune system recharges, and your hormones are regulated.

But did you know that sleeping also helps the brain learn new things and store memory? When you sleep, your brain processes the information you’ve collected during the day, consolidating this into stored memories. So when you don’t sleep enough, your learning and memory end up suffering.

How Does Memory Building Occur?

Your memory is essential in navigating through life. Without memory, you won’t be able to learn and remember the most straightforward concepts and skills. Communicating to each other would be a struggle, and the world as we know it would be impossible!

There are three main types of memories:

  • Semantic memory helps you remember and understand concepts and ideas like names of famous historical people or sounds of letters.
  • Episodic memory is based on events like remembering the details of your graduation or your wedding day.
  • Procedural memory helps you recall the process of learning a skill like riding a bike or driving a car.

For memories to be created, three major processes must occur:

  • Encoding is when the brain learns new information and stores it temporarily.
  • Consolidation is the transformation of short-term memories into more stable and permanent forms.
  • Recall is the ability to remember information.

Studies reveal that encoding and recall happen when you’re awake, while consolidation occurs during sleep.

better sleep better memory - bearaby bag

Consolidating Types Of Memories And The Stages Of Sleep

Two stages of sleep are critical for memory-building: slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM).

Early sleep and memory studies found that REM, or the stage where dreams occur, plays a role in semantic memory processes. This is especially significant when the information is complicated – like learning a new language – or emotionally charged, like seeing your newborn child for the first time. Apart from this, REM sleep is vital for storing procedural memory, for example, a skill needed for playing a particular sport. Meanwhile, storing episodic memory occurs during SWS or the shut-eye stage when deep sleep happens.

Effects Of Sleep Deprivation On Learning And Memory

Now that we know the role of sleep in memory and learning, what about the effects of sleep deprivation?

The current body of sleep research finds that focus and attention are compromised when we’re sleep-deprived. Receiving new information is more challenging and so learning new things becomes more arduous.

Lack of sleep also overworks our neurons – the nerve cells responsible for receiving and transmitting information throughout the body. The impact? Neurons can’t function properly, and our brains end up unable to access previously learned information or store new information. In fact, some studies have found that adequate sleep can help adolescents recall facts by 20% more!

Sleep deprivation also compromises our ability to assess a situation, affecting judgment and decision-making. Finally, poor sleep affects your mood, ultimately also interfering with learning.

better sleep better memory - man sleeping

How To Sleep Better For Improved Memory

Here are a few things you can do to help you sleep better and improve your memory.

Exercise regularly

Research shows that regular exercise increases slow-wave and REM sleep, thus, improving memory function. The WHO recommends adults should do at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity training per week.

Listen to pink noise

Recent studies suggest that pink noise helps you sleep deeper. Pink noise comprises of consistent frequency, like the sound of wind rustling through trees or rain falling. There is a range of available apps that provide pink noise to help boost slow-wave sleep.

Limit alcohol consumption

Alcohol can reduce REM sleep. To reduce the risk of sleep disruption, avoid drinking alcohol at before bedtime.

Use a weighted blanket

Resting under a weighted blanket can help people sleep naturally and deeply. The hefty blanket simulates deep touch pressure, which helps your body relax and fall asleep easily.

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Written by:

dr andras

Dr. Andras Horvath
Dr. Andras Horvath is a clinical neuroscientist who has worked at several international institutions in the United States, Switzerland, Portugal, and Belgium. He is currently based at Semmelweis University where he investigates the impact of sleep changes on cognitive performance, mood, anxiety, and memory.