Never underestimate the power of a good night’s rest
SKIMPING on sleep does awful things to your brain. Planning, problem-solving, learning, concentration,working memory and alertness all take a hit. IQ scores tumble. “If you have been awake for 21 hours straight, your abilities are equivalent to someone who is legally drunk,” says Sean Drummond from the University of California, San Diego. And you don’t need to pull an all-nighter to suffer the effects: two or three late nights and early mornings on the trot have the same effect.
Luckily, it’s reversible – and more. If you let someone who isn’t sleep-deprived have an extra hour or two of shut-eye, they perform much better than normal on tasks requiring sustained attention, such taking an exam. And being able to concentrate harder has knock-on benefits for overall mental performance. “Attention is the base of a mental pyramid,” says Drummond. “If you boost that, you can’t help boosting everything above it.”
These are not the only benefits of a decent night’s sleep. Sleep is when your brain processes new memories, practises and hones new skills – and even solves problems. Say you’re trying to master a new video game. Instead of grinding away into the small hours, you would be better off playing for a couple of hours, then going to bed. While you are asleep your brain will reactivate the circuits it was using as you learned the game, rehearse them, and then shunt the new memories into long-term storage. When you wake up, hey presto! You will be a better player. The same applies to other skills such as playing the piano, driving a car and, some researchers claim, memorising facts and figures. Even taking a nap after training can help, says Carlyle Smith of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.