The BBC reported today that, according to a study presented by The University of Geneva at a Federation of European Neuroscience Societies conference, getting proper sleep will boost your memory. The findings in this small study seem to support claims made by Dr. John Medina in Brain Rules that getting a good quantity and quality of sleep is important for good brain health (brain rule # 7: Sleep well, think well). Medina points out that sleep is not really for resting the brain in the typical sense of the word since the brain actually remains very active at night while we sleep. So why do we sleep then? Medina says that it may be because we need time to process the information acquired during the day. So while you sleep, suggest Medina, your brain is imprinting the memories you took in during that day. Studies show that if you do not get enough sleep (or your sleep is interrupted) "...the information you take in suffers." In today's article, the BBC quotes Dr Neil Stanley on the findings: "Sleep is not just a waste of time, it is a very active time and we need it for things like memory and learning. During the day we acquire information, but at night we sort that information. People complain about sleep deprivation, but now with the 24/7 society and information overload we need our sleep more than ever." (Below are three versions of a slide I'll be using in future talks with a quote from Dr. Stanley; click for larger size.)
One of the researchers in the University of Geneva study, Dr Sophie Schwartz, was also quoted in the BBC article: "Our results revealed that a period of sleep following a new experience can consolidate and improve subsequent effects of learning from the experience." This is also in line with what Dr. John Medina says in Brain Rules. Moral of the story? If you want to be sharp for that big conference presentation or sales pitch, then get a proper amount and quality of sleep. And be mindful that most of your audience members (or students) have not gotten enough sleep (the BBC article cited a recent survey which showed only one in five sleep for eight hours in the UK), so mix it up during your talk to keep them engaged. And by the way, proper exercise will not only "boost brain power" (Medina's brain rule # 1), in my experience, proper exercise during the day will help you sleep better that night as well.
The 3:00 pm presentation
Every semester I have a 2:30 pm - 3:50 pm class to teach. This is a time of day that John Medina calls "the nap zone." If you are a teacher or the lucky person who gets to present at about 3:00 pm you know very well that this is a challenging time to keep audiences (or students) engaged. Not only are many in our audience sleep deprived, but it seems we are wired to need a nap at about that time as well. Dr. Medina says that in the nap zone the brain "...appears to be trying to down cycle..." and this makes focus and concentration more difficult, especially if one is listening passively to a typical bullet point snoozer with the lights dimmed. There are some studies that show a short nap in the afternoon can improve cognitive function. Medina mentions the NASA study here. (Exercise can help: When I worked in Cupertino, I usually went for a daily run (or volleyball match, etc.) at about 3:00 pm, then back at work about 4:30 — but since I was thinking about work ideas while running, what is "work time" anyway?).
As Dr. Medina points out in Brain Rules, experts still do not understand much about sleep yet. But what they do know seems to indicate that we're not getting enough sleep and that sleep deprivation is not only unhealthy (and sometimes dangerous), it impairs cognition and hurts learning...and it makes for sleepy audiences too. See more on the Brain Rules website. And I highly recommend the book. (And just in case you missed the Slideshare on Brain Rules for presenters...)
Two short stories on sleep deprivation
Below is an interesting little video presentation on Peter Tripp's 201 hour wakeathon, a DJ's publicity stunt and an early experiment on sleep deprivation from 1959 (in two parts). Following that is a fascinating and unsettling story of a man suffering from a rare condition known as Fatal Familial Insomnia. The first word in the name of the medical condition answers the question of what would happen if you lost the ability to fall asleep.
Peter Tripp story (on sleep deprivation) Pt 1
Peter Tripp story Pt 2
The secrets of sleep — The man who never slept