October 13, 2010

Zzzs for As

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Your mom has always told you to get a good night’s sleep before a test, but you also know that she would like you to stay on the right side of the grading curve. You figure you can sacrifice a few hours of sleep and make a beeline for your bed as soon as the prelim ends. For those of you who left the lessons of Psych 101 behind with your Donlon dorm room, here is a brief reminder: sleep plays a critical role in memory, health, mood and a plethora of other physical and psychological processes. Simply, sleep (or a lack thereof) drastically effects how your body and brain function.

You might think that pulling an all-nighter before a prelim is the best way to protect your hard-earned GPA, but losing sleep is actually correlated with losing brainpower the next day. Sleep research suggests that performance – especially on any test that requires problem solving – is severely impacted by sleep loss. Using a brain-scanning method called functioning magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), sleep researchers around the country are finding shocking evidence about the reduction in brain activity that results from sleep deprivation.

While the promise of two extra credit points in your psych class might not be nearly enough to get you to agree to be sleep deprived and take math tests, a group of researchers at University of California – San Diego found thirteen volunteers ready to take on the task. The researchers wanted to understand the specific the connection between sleep deprivation and problem solving ability.  They measured the subjects’ performance on arithmetic problems both after a good night of sleep and following a night of sleep deprivation. As you might expect, the participants’ test scores were consistently lower after the night of sleep deprivation. But the study revealed something even more interesting: an explanation for the drop in performance backed by neuroscience.

During the problem solving exercise, each participant was hooked up to an fMRI machine. The scans from the machine show which areas of the brain light up during different types of activity or stimulation, using yellow to represent intense activation and red to represent low activation. When the subjects were well rested, there was an abundance of yellow and red activity in the many different regions of the brain. In contrast, the fMRI scans following the night of sleep deprivation show a small spot of red in one of the three images and no visible activity whatsoever in either of the other two pictures. When you are trying to solve a complicated problem, you want – and need – interaction and synthesis by different parts of your brain. Imagine playing baseball with one hand tied behind your back; your brain is similarly crippled when you sacrifice a night of sleep.

And you’re not off the hook if you’ve already filled your math requirement — quantitative reasoning isn’t the only type of processing that suffers from losing sleep. Another study by the UCSD researchers used fMRI scans to show dramatic fluctuations in brain activity during verbal learning (pay attention, French majors!). The temporal lobe, a region involved in language processing, was activated during verbal learning in rested subjects but was not activated at all in their sleep-deprived subjects.

Even when you’re not mentally prepping for a test, you are doing yourself a serious disservice by depriving yourself of sleep. Another study found that emotion centers of the brain were over 60% more reactive after subjects were sleep deprived than after a normal night of sleep. This doesn’t just translate to being a little grouchier: Matthew Walker, who is the director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging lab explained that the findings, “demonstrate that even healthy people’s brains mimic certain pathological psychiatric symptoms when deprived of sleep.” Pathological psychiatric symptoms. (Did it really merit total hysterics when your roommate used the last of the conditioner?) The changes in brain activity can also mean feeling more depressed or experiencing disproportionate anxiety or stress.

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to realize that magnifying your stress by missing out on sleep is definitely not the way to optimize your performance in an interview, during an exam or on a date. If you won’t take the advice from your mom, take it from the neuroscientists: you need a good night of sleep to stay calm, manage your stress and perform your best.

Original Author: Emily Weinstein