Sleep on it: The Benefits of a Good Night’s Sleep
November 5, 2014
Koala Sleeping in Tree - Benefits of SleepPhoto Credit: Andrew Dyson

What has been found to improve our memory, boost our mood, and make us more creative? You might be surprised to learn that it’s not a new drug, but something as simple as getting a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the data suggests that many of us are not getting the amount we need: about 30% of American adults sleep 6 hours or fewer each night. Read on to learn about some of the benefits of sleep, as well as tips on how to sleep better:

Sleep and Memory: Sleep deprivation makes it harder for people to retain new information. When I was a psychology undergraduate, my professor who studied this topic always warned us not to pull an all-nighter for her class. She had a good reason to do so: research has found that we do worse on memory tests if we haven’t slept. Why might sleep have this beneficial effect on memory? Although there are several theories, one intriguing finding is that our brain seems to “replay” what we learned during the day during our time of slumber: when we learn new things, our hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory) becomes activated, and when we sleep, this brain region becomes activated again.

Sleep and Emotion: Sleep deprivation has negative consequences for emotion: people who are sleep deprived react more strongly to negative events, and less strongly to positive events. And even relatively small amounts of sleep deprivation (sleeping 4-5 hours per night for a week) can lead to changes in mood. When we’re under stress, it’s sometimes difficult to take care of ourselves — but the research that exists suggests that making time for sleep will pay off in the long run.

Sleep and Creativity: Having a good night’s sleep may help us to think more creatively. In one study, participants were assigned a series of math problems, and then tested again on the problems later. Participants who slept in between the two testing sessions were more than twice as likely to discover a creative shortcut that allowed them to solve the problems faster. So next time you’re stuck on a difficult problem, try getting a good night’s sleep (or taking a nap!) and coming back to it: you might just be able to tackle the problem in a new way afterwards.

Getting More Zzzz’s: Although most healthy adults need about 7-9 hours of sleep a night, the amount of sleep people need varies greatly depending on individual factors. If you think you would benefit from more sleep, here are some things to try:

1) Develop good sleep hygiene. If you’re having trouble sleeping, some first steps to try involve keeping a regular bedtime, taking time to relax before bed, and having a comfortable sleep environment. It can be easy to neglect these basics when you’re busy, so if you’re having trouble sleeping, see if any of these things could be the cause.

2) Get out of bed. This might seem counterintuitive, but if you can’t get to sleep, don’t stay in bed watching the clock. Go to another room and do something relaxing until you’re ready to try again.

3) Exercise. Exercise has been found to improve sleep quality, though it’s best to exercise at least three hours before bedtime.

4) Limit exposure to light. The light produced by electronic devices and energy-efficient bulbs can actually interfere with the release of melatonin (a hormone that makes you sleepy). So try avoiding electronic devices for an hour before bed.

5) Keep a sleep diary. The factors that interfere with a restful night’s slumber can differ from person to person, so keeping track of your sleep patterns for a week can help you figure out what works for you (click here for a sleep-diary you can print out).

6) If you’re having trouble sleeping after trying these steps, psychologists have developed a treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia. CBT for insomnia involves working with a psychologist to identify the factors that are keeping you awake, and to develop a plan for addressing them. Click here to learn more about CBT for insomnia.

Further Reading:

CDC: Insufficient Sleep is a Public Health Epidemic

Matthew Walker: The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion

David Dinges: Cumulative Sleepiness, Mood Disturbance, and Psychomotor Vigilance Performance Decrements During a Week Of Sleep Restricted To 4-5 Hours Per Night

How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?

Healthy Sleep Tips

How Does Exercise Affect Sleep Duration and Quality?

See: Visual Conditions and Sleep

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology.  Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health.  Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.

  1. Thank you Elizabeth, for writing this. I’ve been getting a bit less than 8 hours on three days of the week. I will try to get an extra 30 minutes and see if that improves my focus, memory, mood…and (duh) not feeling as tired at work.

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