Our brain is the boss of the body. The squishy mass encased in our skull runs the show and controls just about everything we do, even whilst we sleep. Not bad for something that looks like a big grey wrinkly sponge. As we love to remind our Meta Prep pupils, the brain is a muscle that needs to be strengthened and nurtured, just like the rest of our body. Each of us has the responsibility of looking after our brain and improving how it works.
Understanding the brain’s workings and how we can help boost its effectiveness will increase our ability to learn and remember. The brain relies on exercise, diet and sleep to keep it functioning at a productive level. Eating the right foods to support and increase brain power makes sense: oily fish, walnuts and seeds are key sources of Omega 3.
Today, on World Sleep Day, we wanted to draw it to your attention. Arguably this is the most important of the three, so we are going to focus on the effects of sleep and its role in brain growth.
Neural Pathways and Neuroplasticity
Your brain is filled with around 86 billion neurons that connect together creating trillions of connections and neural pathways. Everytime you learn something new, a new pathway forms. The more that particular pathway is used, the more easily the information it carries can be accessed by other parts of the pathway network. Neural pathways are strengthened through repeated use. When we sleep, the brain rehearses what we have learnt during the day. To allow learning within the day to be reinforced, we need sleep and plenty of it. Sleep also allows information learned during the day to be transferred to the outer layer and the home of long-term memory from your working memory.
Every individual person’s brain is unique, adapting to the varying environments and responding to experiences and learning. This is called neuroplasticity and is the notion that our brain can change and develop throughout our lives. If we want our neurons and neural pathways to promote positive neuroplasticity, we need to ensure that we provide the best conditions for them to do so: good sleep, diet and exercise.
The Science of Sleep
Throughout the day, your brain develops toxins that build up in your brain. Thankfully when you sleep, your brain cells shrink and the toxins fall through the gaps and are washed away. Lack of sleep and the toxins remain in your brain leaving you groggy and unable to think straight. It prevents new neurons from growing and making those neural pathways.
Sleeping allows your brain to rest. It allows you to switch off from stimulation and repair the cells. Getting the right amount of sleep and exercise can increase your endorphins. Additionally, it allows your brain to make new connections across different pieces of information. Benefits are being able to: concentrate more in school or work; feel happier and more energetic; enhancing capacity for drawing information and processing from our environment.
Getting sufficient sleep is crucial to the brain’s development.
Studying and Sleep
Sleep is the key to successful studying. It energises us, allowing our brains to mull over the day’s learning and reflections. As we wake, we are more able to focus and may even spark new ideas to solve a problem or start a new creative project. In effect, we can use sleep to our advantage.
Our brain has two operating modes: focused and diffused.
- Focused mode is when you are completely focused on one task,
- Diffused mode is when you take a break from that task and allow your mind to wander or work on something else. While you are doing something else, your brain is continuing to work in the background and bounce around ideas and thoughts. It is trying to make sense of the variable ideas and make connections. Taking a nap is an example of a diffuse mode activity.
Creative and busy minds, such as Salvador Dali and Eleanor Roosevelt, took regular naps to mull over their ideas and increase their energy. Take your lead from a genius or two!
Conversely, taking a nap should not be your go-to every single time you don’t want to do anything… This is where Spaced Recall is proven to be more effective for retaining and integrating new information into the brain. Spacing out learning into smaller chunks with mini breaks in between will allow your brain to consolidate the information and strengthen the neural pathways. It is about selecting information, organising it into our current knowledge so that it can be integrated successfully into our long term memory.
Cramming the night before an exam is not good! Firstly, you will lose those precious hours of sleep to rid your brain of toxins important for a clear mind during an exam. Secondly, your brain will not have the time it needs to process and understand the information properly, leaving you with a half formed understanding of your learning and making it more difficult to add in new information in the future.
How to promote good sleep habits
As we get older, we don’t need as much sleep. However, everyone still needs a good night’s sleep. It is recommended that between the ages of 7 and 12, you should be getting around 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night. To help you make the most of sleep as a learning tool:
- Keeping a sleep journal can help to monitor your sleep more closely. Record the number of hours and how well you slept. Record any events that may have led to a good or bad night’s sleep. You can also write down anything that is worrying you or keeping you awake thinking about it.
- Exercise everyday, whether it is playing netball, going for a big swim or walking around your neighbourhood; mix it up. Exercise can help you to fall asleep and stay asleep as well as boosting your neurons’ ability to function better.
- Reducing blue screen time, on computers, phones and TVs, a couple hours before going to sleep can greatly boost how well you sleep.
- Make sure you keep the same sleeping routine each night, i.e. going to sleep at the same time each night, particularly in the lead up to exams.
- Find a relaxing activity to do before you go to sleep. This can include reading, doing a craft or playing a board game, depending on your preferences.
- The Sleep Charity suggests eating some “sleepy foods” such as almonds, bananas and dairy to help you drift off to sleep.
Sleep has power!
So yes, sleep is all it is cracked up to be! During the 11+ exams and throughout your life, it is important to take care of your body and mind through sleep, exercise and diet. They can also bring a huge amount of joy to your life, including finding new passions for a hobby, sport or cooking. Our neurons are precious and giving them good sleep, food and exercise are integral to healthy brain function. Understanding and using these intelligent learning behaviours are integral to a successful life and are behaviours and activities we need to be consciously completing every day.