Get More Sleep: How and Why We Recharge Our Brains

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Originally published December 19, 2019

We’ve all been there. It’s 12:30am on a Wednesday night, and you just want to finish your work and be done with it. You finally crawl into bed around 1am, hoping that the next five hours bring a blissful and rejuvenating sleep… only to awaken and find yourself woefully unenergized and under-enthused for the new day’s activities.

Sleep is our brain’s opportunity to recharge. So much of our cognitive, executive, and emotional functioning rests (no pun intended) on getting good sleep. One of the principal functions of sleep is to help our brains with memory consolidation – the process of transferring the things we recently learned into long-term memory. Without adequate sleep, it’s likely that those memories will never get encoded into our brain’s long-term storage. That absence could contribute to the phenomenon of students engaging in night-before-the-test cramming, which will undoubtedly lead to disrupted sleep, which will impair your ability to remember the things you learned. See the problem?

You may have noticed that after a bad night’s sleep, you tend to feel a little grumpier. There’s a reason for that. One of the primary cognitive functions impaired by sleep deprivation is emotional control. People are more irritable and more easily stressed when they haven’t gotten enough sleep. This is chiefly because the amygdala, the part of the brain in charge of detecting threats, is 60% more reactive when people are tired. When the amygdala is more reactive, we tend to see threats everywhere. Our friend isn’t just upset, they’re upset with us; our teacher isn’t just calling on us, they’re picking on us; someone bumps into you in the hall, and it feels like they did it on purpose.

Students and parents alike will often find themselves sacrificing a quality night’s sleep for things that seem more important, developing a habit of putting sleep at the bottom of the “to-do” list. By making sleep a low priority, we doom ourselves to never getting enough of it. There will always be something that feels more important. The only way to ensure you get the rest you need is to let sleep come first, and then budget the rest of your time accordingly.

It’s clear we need a good amount of sleep to stay at our best – but what is a “good amount” of sleep? The answer is pretty straightforward: eight hours of sleep a night, 56 hours a week. The typical adolescent needs a little more – about nine hours each night. Consistency in this area is key. It’s easy to dismiss the harm in dropping down from eight hours to six hours, but do that often enough and you’ll have missed out on some serious sleep. If you only got six hours of sleep a night for one month, you’ll have missed out on 56 hours of sleep – an entire week’s worth. 

Do yourself a favor and make sure sleep comes first.

Tips for Sleep

Wind-down: The light that comes from our electronic devices (phones, iPads, laptops, etc.) stimulates our brains and can often make it significantly harder to fall asleep. Try to give yourself at least 30 minutes before going to bed to be screen-free. During that time, aim to do something relaxing that will help set you up for a good night’s rest.

No phones in the bedroom: Just don’t. As tempting as it is to have access to the collective knowledge of the human race right at your bedside, it’s too much to resist when you’re trying to focus on falling asleep. The tired excuse of using a phone as an alarm clock doesn’t cut it either – buy an alarm clock and let your phone sleep somewhere else.

Exercise: Any amount will help. In terms of evolution, it wasn’t that long ago that we were all hunter-gatherers running through the wilds to survive. Our bodies still need a certain degree of physical activity to stay at their best. Whether you take a long walk every day, jump rope for a few minutes, or lift weights, be sure to get at least a little bit of exercise every day – but maybe not right before bedtime.

Get a nice pillow (or bed if you can): A friend once told me that he likes to invest his money where he spends his time. With that said, he has one of the comfiest beds this side of the Atlantic. The average person spends a little over a quarter of their entire lifetime in bed, so it makes sense to take steps to make sure your bed is one of, if not the most, comfortable places for you to be. Just don’t spend your waking hours there too and risk associating your room with work – beds are for sleeping.

Ned Johnson

President & Tutor-Geek

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters. A professional tutor-geek since 1993, Mr. Johnson has devoted in excess of 35,000 hours in one-on-one test prep for nearly the entire alphabet of tests. His experience includes work with all ages and abilities in preparation for SSAT and ISEE to ACT and SAT to GMAT, GRE and LSAT.

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