Someone sleeps to forget. The rest of us sleep to remember.

I just read a clinical report of a patient who claimed that her working memory got erased every morning after a night of sleep. This is important news for Hindi movie-directors in need of a new type of amnesia for the big screen, but the rest of us will find it interesting too:

Since an automobile accident in 2005, patient FL has reported difficulty retaining information from one day to the next. During the course of any given day, she describes her memory as normal. However, memory for each day disappears during a night of sleep. She reports good memory for events that occurred before the accident. Although this pattern of memory impairment is, to our knowledge, unique to the medical literature, it was depicted in the fictional film “50 First Dates”.

The patient was clearly able to recall event that happened the same day, but did poorly when asked about events that happened the previous day. When the researchers mixed questions about current and past events without the patient’s knowledge, she did fairly well. What that might suggest is that she had been lying all along, but researchers also found genuine lapses in procedural memory involving motor skills – something much harder to fake.

What is worth noting is that researchers couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her brain after multiple tests so they concluded that she suffered from a genuine type of functional amnesia similar to that depicted in the movie 50 First Dates. Although the patient claimed to not having seen the movie, she did admit that Drew Barrymore, who acted in it, was one of her favorite actresses.

Researchers hypothesized that this peculiar form of amnesia might have actually developed from her knowledge of plot elements in the movie. This isn’t art imitating life. This is art (or more accurately, a cheesy movie) influencing life.

There is a happy ending here though. In a hospital, the patient was trained to overcome her amnesia by waking up every 4.5 hours.

Why is this bizarre story so amazing? Well, there is a huge body of evidence which suggests that sleep plays a major role in the consolidation of memories. In other words, while we sleep new, adaptable memories become embedded into our memory network and become more stable. Even a single night of sleep-deprivation has the ability to impact memory retention, which explains why I don’t remember anything from my exam-induced college all-nighters. In the way memories are consolidated, the patient FL seems to be different from most other people.

So what can you do to improve your memory?  I was hoping you’d ask.

Here are a few tips on how to sleep to remember:

  • Even short naps of minutes to hours are effective in increasing memory retention, but the best improvements are witnessed after a full night of sleep.
  • If you wake up often in the middle of the night, it might be due to stress, which in turn, might influence your memory.
  • You may be more alert in the morning and remember what you’ve learned through the day, but sleeping three hours after learning works better than sleeping more than ten hours later.
  • If you’re a morning person, you may find short naps useful. If you’re a night-owl, be sure to get at least some shut-eye.

Lastly, if you forget everything I’ve written here, perhaps you need to re-evaluate your sleep hygiene.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

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