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sleep and memory

Find out how this recent study shows the effect of our perception of how much sleep we get to how well we perform during the day (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

Just in case you missed the memo, getting enough sleep is very important to your health.  In fact, recent studies have shown that your risk for everything from diabetes to heart disease to cancer is higher when you consistently get less sleep than you need.  Additionally, in the short term lack of sleep can cause problems with alertness, cognition, memory, judgment and mood.  Putting together the short and long term ramifications of sleep deprivation can be a frightening for people who struggle with sleep, work swing and night shifts, and those who just can’t seem to find enough time in the day to fit everything in.  But there may be a small ray of hope, at least when it comes to dealing with the short term problems associated with sleep loss.

You may be able to trick your brain into thinking you got more sleep than you did. At least that is what the research team from Colorado College found in a recent study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

Participants in the study were told they were going to be testing out a new technique for measuring sleep quality.  This technique, which does not actually exist, would enable the research team to measure how well the person slept the night before.  Each participant was asked to rate the quality of their sleep from the night before on a scale of 1-10, were hooked up to an EEG machine and shown complicated spreadsheets full of data to convince them of the validity of the technique.

Next, the participants were split into two groups.  The first group was informed that the test showed they got more REM sleep the night before than an average person does which increases their mental alertness.   The other group was told they got less REM sleep than average the night before.  Then all participants listened to a short presentation about the importance of REM sleep on cognitive abilities and alertness.  During the presentation, participants were told that people who get more REM sleep than the average adult perform better on tests involving learning and memory and that those who get less REM sleep than average perform worse.

Lastly, each participant was given a test to assess their auditory attention and speed of processing, both of which are degraded by sleep deprivation.  The results of this test were interesting enough that the study, which was developed and completed by an undergraduate, was published by the professional journal above.

The shocking result?  Across the board, the people who thought they had above average REM sleep the night before performed better on the test than those who were told their REM sleep was below average, regardless of how much sleep they actually got.   The team conducting the study believes this is an example of the placebo effect, where our belief about the benefit of something like a medication can create results regardless of whether or not the actual medication works.

However, thinking yourself into a more alert state doesn’t change all the other negative consequences of not getting the sleep you need which means you still need to work hard to get the 7-9 hours recommended for adults.