Sleep your way to smart The hack you've been waiting for.

In Everyday Science

Procrastinators, lazy *sses, nappers and me. We’ve been waiting for this one.

When we were young, our parents told us to sleep ‘cause it would makes us grow and be smart. So we stayed out playing 'till the streetlights came on.

In college we were told to study well, get good sleep and focus on becoming well rounded individuals. So we pulled all-nighters religiously (although not always for passing exams...) and got chastised by it by our RA, teachers and parents again. (Oye).

And now we're grown up and we get to make the rules, so we've decided we're ready to sleep. Only problem is now we don’t get to because of work stress, kids, Netflix... (Yes, I just grouped your kids in with technology. Get over it). And your mom still calls and tells you not to work so hard and to get some rest. (Parents. They never give up do they?)

And so as we drag ourselves out of bed every morning to get to work on time, still feeling sluggish and bleary eyed, we start to wonder...What if we'd listened all along and slept as much as we were told to? Would we be feeling any different? Let's take a closer look at the science behind this constant reminder that's hounded us our entire lives. 

So what’s the deal? Does sleep really make us smarter?

Let’s check out what happens behind the scenes in your brain when you go all sleeping beauty on yourself. (Yes this applies to the men too - you can be the sleeping dudes if it makes you feel less uncomfortable).

I’m not going to try and make this all pretty and call your brain a garden like most people do. Have you ever seen one up close? It ain’t pretty and it also smells. So we’re going to look at your brain like the side of a highway on the interstate 60. It's not pretty either, but it’s functional.

The neurons are like the highway, and on this neural highway, we have Glial cells which are like the chain gangs cleaning up the energy waste on the side of the road. (Man I'm like a freakin' poetic scientist).

Why are these cells like chain gangs left for all eternity (or until you die) to keep cleaning up your mess? Probably had something to do with bad Karma, I don’t know. You don't question poetry. You feel it. 

There are a lot of wild plants and weeds on the side of the highway, and similarly in your brain, there are plenty of synaptic connections growing between neurons. These connections grow as you grow, learn and habituate your behaviours.

In your CNS (central nervous system), the most abundant type of cell you have is the Glial cell. Now knowing that our bodies were designed adhering strictly to the Scandinavian design ethos of “form follows function”, this should give you a clue as to the importance of the Glial cell. And knowing that half of you are already sleep deprived and fuzzy brained as a result of it, I’m going to make this point explicitly clear: we have more Glial cells than any other type of cell in the CNS because what they do, is so very important.

So WTF do they do?

Well they actually have 4 functions:

  • To surround neurons and hold them in place
  • To supply nutrients and oxygen to neurons
  • To insulate one neuron from another
  • To destroy pathogens and remove dead neurons

It’s this last point that’s of particular importance to us. Why? Because this process of repair and cleaning happens in your brain when you sleep—your brain cells end up shrinking by up to 60% to create space for your Glial chain gangs to come into the spaces around them, and take away the waste.

This is how our Glial chain gangs helps us be smarter. By removing the pathogens and dead neurons, it’s removing the “fuzzy feeling” that we get when we’re sometimes overloaded. Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like driving your way across a littered highway with overhanging bushes that scratch the sides of your car. It's slow-going, exhausting and the light can’t get through the overgrowth.

Your Glial chain gangs clean the pathogens & dead neurons and remove that “fuzzy feeling”  we get when we’re overwhelmed. @IdeasWithRaisa

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Have you ever woken up from a good night’s rest and been able to think clearly and quickly? Even a short 10 to 20 minute nap gives your Glial chain gangs the chance to come in, clear away the garbage, and leaves you with cleared space to take in and process new information—aka, learn like a bad*ss. This is why naps are so beneficial to your cognitive abilities.

Thinking on a well-rested brain is like driving happily down the highway listening to your favourite jam. The road is open and cleared and you can see far ahead of you. You know how everyone says you should enjoy your journey towards your goals? Well this is one part of the equation on how to do that. Good sleep allows you to feel comfortable on the highway to your goals so that you can put on the cruise control and actually enjoy the journey.

Good sleep lets you feel comfortable on the highway to your goals. So hit cruise control and enjoy the journey. @IdeasWithRaisa

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Now before you go off and start a fan club in my honour, just wait --- it only gets better. So let’s dig a little further.

When is it the best time to sleep? (I mean besides nighttime you smart*ss).

Here’s the deal. If you sleep before learning, it prepares your brain (by the process that I described above ie: Glial cells going all thug-like on the waste accumulating in your brain) so that it can soak up and learn new information the next day. There are unique short bursts of electrical activity called sleep spindles that happen during non-REM sleep, and it’s believed that they help our brain move information from its short term storage site in the hippocampus to its long term storage site—upstairs in your cortex. This pretty much leaves you refreshed and with the ability to learn new and exciting things when you wake up each morning. (As evidenced when you wake up without that fuzzy cobwebbed feeling).

So, sleep before learning is critical, but here’s the kicker: it’s also awesome to sleep after learning. (Brilliant. We could do this all day. Except we wouldn’t have time to learn anything…) Sleeping after you learn something gives your brain the time to take that new information and essentially cement it into the neural wiring in your brain. Here, a different type of electrical activity comes into play. Slow wave sleep (which is present in a deeper state of non-REM sleep) helps solidify newly learned memories so that we don’t forget them. It’s like hitting the save button on a new Google Doc that you’ve just typed up.

And it just gets better and better. Sleep can also help you cross-link new pieces of information together. This means you can start to extract commonalities and develop insights into problems that you were having the day before and inspire a creative solutions to the problems and challenges you face. Ever had a problem and been told to “sleep on it?” That wasn’t some lame*ss advice.

"Sleeping on it" inspires creative solutions to the problems and challenges we face. Take a nap. Solve sh*t. @IdeasWithRaisa

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So now that I’ve given you all the reasons to hit the snooze and get some shut eye, here’s something to keep in mind: sleep is not like the bank. You cannot accumulate a sleep debt and then hope to pay it off at a later point in time. Sleep is an all-or-nothing, as-you-need service you have to provide yourself with.

So next time someone says you can sleep when you’re dead, and to come and help clean out the garage...well you now have your argument. Not only can you tell others about this awesome hack, but they can’t argue with you. (It’s scientifically proven b*tches). And yes, you can send me your emails of undying thanks telling me how awesome I am for making your life that much more easier. Your welcome.


Memory Improvement - Ryan Smith

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