June 01, 2020

SYNAPSE Step #6 – Sleep

Say YES to sleep
by Christine Marshall

This is #7 in a series of 8 posts. Visit post #6 here.

Rooted in the fundamentals of neuroscience and buoyed by the power of storytelling, SYNAPSE was designed to support students as they step up to new academic challenges. And, yes, remote learning certainly counts as a new academic challenge. Offering practical tips for students as they strive to construct meaning while working independently, SYNAPSE is easy to learn and fun to implement. Most importantly, SYNAPSE frees students from negative thought cycles that can undermine their progress, especially when the task at hand seems “just too big.”

Sleep, the second S in SYNAPSE, will boost your learning while also improving your health. Tomorrow’s chances for success depend on bedtime tonight. So do yourself a favor and #SayYesToSleep!

SLEEP – Say "YES" to sleep

Each night, your hippocampus replays the most important experiences of your day. Reactivated while you rest peacefully, it engages in an electrical dance with other brain areas, resulting in the safe storage of new memories. As new bits of information are saved each night, networks securing them in place are strengthened and refined to maximize storage capacity and improve retrieval efficiency. Your hippocampus is then refreshed, a necessary first step in the formation of tomorrow’s memories. Finally, your brain receives a power wash, flushing wastes from your neural tissues. Learn to appreciate and harness the power of sleep by practicing the following steps, based on what we know about sleep and memory, as well as glymphatic clearance.

  • Employ study strategies that stimulate memory consolidation. Not all memories are consolidated while your sleep. Your hippocampus spends its resources reactivating those that a big impression, letting others fade away. Narrate, Associate, and Personalize offer strategies for deliberately “tagging” new memories during your waking hours, boosting their relevance, emotional weight, and chances for consolidation later during sleep.
  • Stagger study sessions to maximize learning. Revisit complex ideas several times over a period of days, separated by sleep-filled nights, rather than attempting to cram your learning into one long study session. Similar to the benefits of repetitions when you exercise, you must allow a recovery period—consolidation—to reap the benefits of your workout. After all, when did one day at the gym ever get you very far?
  • Pump up the melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by your brain in the late evening. It orchestrates the slowing and cooling of your body, facilitating your drift towards sleep. Artificial lights such as bright lamps and digital screens interrupt the release of melatonin, disturbing nature’s tried and true method for putting you to bed when the day is done. Reduce room lighting and choose a book over the screen to pump up your melatonin, making it easier to fall asleep at a healthy time.
  • Don’t mess with adenosine. Your body uses a tremendous amount of energy to remain alive and well. Adenosine, a byproduct of this expenditure, accumulates in your body throughout the day. Once it reaches high levels, it signals neurons in your brain to rest. But caffeine blocks the ability of adenosine to send this important message. Eliminate caffeine consumption during the afternoon to avoid over-riding nature’s efforts to ensure that your body—including your brain—receives enough Zzz’s.

Delicious and good for you, sleep filled nights offer it all—memory consolidation and game-changing improvements to your well-being. As you strive to work in a more meaningful and healthy way this spring, #SayYesToSleep!

Dr. Christine Marshall, a biology instructor at Phillips Academy, began developing SYNAPSE as a Tang Institute Fellow in 2016. She currently teaches a science elective, The Neurobiology of Learning, Memory, and Sleep, for 11th and 12th graders. Learn more about her work by visiting her blog, Laboratory for Learning.

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