Credit: Lehigh
Credit: Lehigh

Sept. 21, 2016 – A late night at the library, copious amounts of energy drinks or coffee and class notes from the last month; surely you’ll be able to ace the exam if you just spend the next 24 hours focused on the material. Unfortunately, procrastination and sleep deprivation do much more harm than good. A Texas A&M College of Medicine sleep expert explains exactly how much that all-nighter is hurting you—and your performance.

A sleep deprived brain is dysfunctional

We will all probably encounter sleep deprivation at some point in our lives, whether willingly or unwillingly. Still, if you think staying awake all night is beneficial to your study habits, think again.

“Sleep deprivation’s effect on working memory is staggering,” said David Earnest, PhD, a professor with the Texas A&M College of Medicine who studies circadian rhythms (our 24-hour body clocks). “Your brain loses efficiency with each hour of sleep deprivation.”

Most people need at least seven to eight hours of sleep at night for the body and brain to function normally. So, if you stay up all night, missing out on the recommended amount of sleep, your brain will be equally as weary—rendering a sharp decrease in performance for specific learning and memory tasks.

All-nighters activate short-term, not long-term memory

Let’s face it, we only pull all-nighters when we’ve fallen behind and are trying to rapidly catch up on information or a project. But quickly trying to cram this information into our brains only uses short-term memory—and long-term memory is what we need to recall and retain most facts.

“When we try to learn information quickly, we’re only enabling short-term memory,” Earnest said. “This memory type extinguishes rapidly. If you don’t ‘re-use’ information, it disappears within a period of a few minutes to a few hours. Cramming doesn’t allow information to assimilate from short-term to long-term memory, which is important for performing well on a project or exam.”

Remember Dory’s short-term memory problems in Finding Nemo? That’s your brain on an all-nighter.

Use it, or you’ll lose it

Earnest said studying in small increments, well in advance of an exam, is your best bet to achieve a good score. In other words, use it or you’ll lose it.

“It’s fruitless to prepare for an exam hours beforehand,” he said. “The optimal study method is to stay on top of things and prepare by studying in small chunks (20 to 30 minutes), multiple times per day, three to four days in advance of the test. By going through information numerous times, you’re allowing your brain to move those facts to long-term memory for better recall.”

“I tell our medical students that verbal rehearsal is what moves content from short-term to long-term memory,” Earnest continued. “Repeating information, whether out loud or verbalizing it in your thoughts, helps spur this process forward.”

Study earlier for better retention

As the day wears on, the brain also becomes wearier. This daily rhythm in cognitive performance is controlled by our body clocks, and performance for learning and memory is higher during the morning and day, not late at night.

“As the day progresses into the night, the brain’s performance significantly decreases,” Earnest said. “So, by studying all night, you’re essentially swimming upstream and fighting against your body’s natural rhythms. Peak cognitive efficiency occurs much earlier in the day.”

Instead of staying up all night, Earnest recommends studying as much as you can until bedtime and waking up early in the morning before a test to go over the material again. “Sleep rejuvenates by providing an opportunity for the metabolism, body and brain to slow down and recover,” he said. “It’s crucial that it’s not missed.”

Ditch the sound bite mentality

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the tasks in front of you, especially since there are only so many hours in a day to achieve our goals.

“The problem is our society thinks in sound bites,” Earnest said. “We believe we can comprehend information at the last minute, which is unwise. “If we perpetuate this habit in college, it will have a great impact on us both academically and personally. Establishing good habits early on is the key to success.”