When a new fact evaporates, or the name of the acquaintance you just chatted with slips away, anyone can feel frustrated. If you’re youngish, you may be irritated that you’re distracted or under stress. If you’re older, you may be feeling all that too, plus a shiver of concern about an aging brain.
All of these things–distraction, stress, and natural aging–can cause your short-term memory to sputter like an old jalopy.
The good news is that just like the VW bug, unless disease is responsible, your faltering memory can also make a comeback. The single-most powerful engine for memory function is sleep. Enough sleep. On a comfortable organic mattress in a serene bedroom is best, naturally—but wherever you sleep, adequate shut-eye time is critical to your ability to recall.
The Forklift in Your Brain
Why? Processing memories is the biggest job your hardworking brain is up to while you sleep. Your brain is like a memory warehouse, managing inventory with a busy “forklift” that runs only during the deepest stages of sleep, which total just a few hours. During deep sleep, your brain moves memories from short-term storage (say, the loading dock) into long-term storage–inside the warehouse. Rather than let them clutter up the dock and block new deliveries, the forklift shuttles your new memories indoors. This frees up more short-term memory space, clearing the dock for the next day.
Skimping on sleep? You just won’t have room for all the new information you take in. It won’t have enough loading dock space to land on, so many of these new memories will be lost.
That’s short-term memory in a nutshell. You can’t retrieve (recall) what you haven’t been able to securely store–and adequate sleep time is essential to memory storage.
REM, or shallower sleep, during which stress hormones switch off and your brain works to process the day’s events, is important, too. But because sleep stages go in cycles all night long, you can’t just order up a few hours of deep sleep, skip the REM, and wake up with your recall fully intact. It all comes back to a good night’s sleep, all 7-8 hours of it. You may even be one of the five in 100 people who need nine or 10.
“I’ll catch up on weekends”
Can’t you just sleep in later? Unfortunately, though we can fool ourselves, we can’t fool our brains. Memory storage must be accomplished within 24 hours of when new information is taken in-—or you can kiss much of that new info goodbye. Sleeping in a few days later may ease your body some, but the short-term memories you’ve lost will stay lost.
When you prioritize a full night’s sleep, you’ll not only feel better physically, but you’ll have a better working memory, too. Try to remember that.