Sleep has incredible restorative benefits and is considered the third pillar of health along with diet and exercise. In the past, we’ve explored how food may affect your sleep and the relationship between fitness and sleep, but what effect does sleep have on our minds? 

How Sleep Restores the Brain 

Brain activity that occurs during sleep helps our minds recover from everything they’ve had to do throughout the day. During the day, our brains accumulate toxins just from the daily activities they need to do. If left alone, those toxins can lead to memory impairment over time. Luckily, our bodies have a defense system against these toxins. When we sleep, our brains continue to work and flush out those toxins, so we have a fresh start in the morning. However, it’s important that we get enough sleep, otherwise the toxins remain around our brains. 

Memory 

One of the best things that sleep does for us is increase our ability to make memories and remember. While we sleep, our memories travel from short-term memory in the hippocampus to long-term memory in the neocortex. This transfer from the hippocampus makes room in our brains to make more memories and storing the memories in the neocortex help us remember things that happened.  

Learning 

The brain’s ability to transfer memories is essential for learning. According to Matthew Walker, Ph.D., “Sleep has proven itself time and again as a memory aid: both before learning, to prepare your brain for initially making new memories, and after learning, to cement those memories and prevent forgetting” (Why We Sleep 108-9). Therefore, getting enough sleep is essential during education and when you’re trying to learn something new.  

 Forgetting 

Something unique about sleep is that it can help you forget unnecessary memories to make room for more essential memories. For example, it probably isn’t essential that you remember where you parked your car at the grocery store last week, so sleep will take that memory and get rid of it instead of putting it in long-term memory. By “taking out the garbage” that builds up in your brain, sleep helps you remember the important things, like your anniversary.   

 Motor Skills 

In addition to helping you remember the important things and forget the unimportant things, sleep solidifies motor skills you’re learning. Researchers showed that sleeping after working on a motor skill, such as a basketball drill or a tricky crochet stitch, can turn those skills into instinctual habits by the morning. That means the skills come to you more naturally, so you don’t have to think about them so hard. For example, if a person is working on a tricky part of a piano piece and can’t quite get it, going to sleep will solidify that motor skill so they can play that part in the morning. Pretty nifty if you need to learn a new skill.  

 Sleep and Your Brain 

Sleep does so many things for your mind that can’t happen when you’re awake. Getting enough sleep allows your brain to get rid of toxins, store memories, learn new things, forget unimportant things, and perfect motor skills. In order to get these amazing benefits, make sure you get 7-9 hours of sleep every night.