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Published: September 17, 2020

How Sleep Affects Your Memory

How Sleep Affects Your Memory

If you didn't already know, sleep and the quality of sleep dramatically affects our memory, especially in the deeper stages of sleep in the early hours of the morning.

By Lucy Powell

Your memory allows you to relive important and meaningful times in your life.

It also provides a wealth of knowledge that is retained and allows you to be able to retrieve the information at a moment’s notice.

In order to have a memory three functions occur, such as acquisition, consolidation and recall.

During sleep your brain processes the information and experiences you had throughout the day.

If you are sleep deprived, your brain is not able to properly absorb and process the day’s events and causes you to have a foggy memory.

Sleep has a role in the consolidation of memory and is affected by the quality and quantity of sleep you experience.

a woman unable to sleep at night staring at a clock


As mentioned earlier there are three functions that occur in order for you to have a memory.

  • Acquisition – The experience of learning something new and the introduction of the information into the brain.
  • Consolidation – The memory becomes stable in the brain.
  • Recall – The ability to access the information after it has been stored.

These important functions create a memory. If you are sleep deprived, your brain is held back from the chance to achieve all three functions due to the fact that consolidation happens only during sleep.

Experiencing sleep deprivation can cause you to not remember important information that is essential to your daily life. For example, you may forget that your children are getting out of school early one day and since you don’t have any memory of it, you forget to pick your children up, causing a phone call from the school.

"... lack of sleep is associated with all kinds of negative health consequences including increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease"

Dr Rangan Chattergee

Types of Memory

  • Declarative Memory – This memory is based on fact. It allows you to remember detailed information such as a second language and topics you study at school or work.
  • Procedural Memory – This type of memory is related on how to do something. For example, it allows you to recall how to play an instrument, fix a car and ride a bicycle.

Imagine how many days have gone by that you learned how to do something important, like a new task at your job, and the very next day you couldn’t remember doing it.

A good example of the effects sleep has on memory is when a person begins a new job.

Starting a new job is one of life’s major stresses. It causes anxiety and stress to reach high levels as you embark on your new experience.

Almost every job requires training and you spend most of your day focusing on learning the computer programs that need to be used in order to successfully do your new job.

You may be very focused during training, taking notes and following every instruction given to you. Later that evening you realize you are feeling anxious and it causes you to not be able to fall asleep, hours go by and you suddenly wake up to your alarm clock buzzing and realize you only slept for two hours.

This means your brain did not have enough time to go through the consolidation process that is needed to retain memory.

You arrive at your second day of work and guess what? You can barely remember what you learned the day before, other than the notes you took, you are lost and confused, which causes more stress and the cycle continues.

man looking at phone during bedtime
Don't be like this guy. Switch your phone off and put it in another room.

Sleep Better

While it may be impossible to shake off nerves and stress due to life events, there are some things you can do in order to get a better night sleep.

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed.
  • Take a relaxing bath with essential oils.
  • Journal and jot down all of your emotions before you go to bed.
  • Go to bed at the same time every evening.
  • Consume your last meal or snack of the day at least two hours prior to bed time.
  • Listen to calming music or read a book to help your mind relax.
Writing in a journal or making notes might help the mind to relax

"It's during deep sleep when we dream that our memory function improvements are built up over the long term"

These helpful tips will help you relieve your worries by writing them down and help calm you so that your mind is able to relax and fall asleep.

If you find that you are experiencing chronic sleep problems or sleep deprivation it can be caused by something more serious such as a sleep disorder.

black coffee next to a book
This is definitely decaffeinated coffee...

Once you practice calming techniques and follow the helpful tips above, but still are not achieving a good night sleep, you should try keeping a sleep diary for about two weeks.

Note your sleeping habits, physical symptoms such as snoring and gasping for air during sleep and how many times you wake up at night.

Bring this journal to your doctor and discuss your difficulty with your memory. The doctor will guide you on a path to recovery and you will return to living a happy, healthy life.