The question raised by the title of this post is highly relevant given that about one-third of our lives is spent sleeping. A brief piece titled “A bad night’s sleep messes with your brain’s memory connections in the In Brief Section of the August 27, 2016 Edition of the “New Scientist” provides a compelling answer. The piece begins with the following sentence, “This is why you feel so awful after a bad night’s sleep—your brain is jammed with yesterday’s news.”
The research was done by Christoph Nissen and his team at the University Medical Center in Freiburg, Berman. They examined the brains of 20 people after they’d slept well, and after a night of disruption. They found that after a bad’s night sleep, people had higher levels of theta brainwaves, and it was easier to stimulate their brains using magnetic pulses (“Nature Communications.” DOI”10.1038/ncomms12455).
The findings support the theory that sleep serves to weaken memory connections, making way for new ones. Nissan says that without this synaptic downscaling, the brain loses the capacity to for novel connections, impairing the encoding of novel memories. The theory is that sleep evolved so that connections in the brain can be pruned down during slumber, making room for fresh memories to form the next day.
The idea that sleep is important to memory is not new. And memory is certainly important enough that we need to devote about one-third of our lives supporting it. Of course, it is likely that memory is not the only capacity to benefit, but it is likely that other capacities that benefit are closely related to memory.
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