Remember to sleep, sleep to remember!
Each day, we exercise our memory abilities to perform numerous tasks. These can range from memorizing the team’s coffee orders in the morning (Kopi-O, Kopi-O-peng, Kopi-C-Siu Dai, argh…), to remembering to respond to a text from a friend, or being able to quickly retrieve facts learned in medical school if one is quizzed during grand ward rounds.
For many Singaporeans, the thought of having to memorize information inadvertently brings back memories of the days of pre-exam cramming and all-nighter study sessions. With limited time, we had often chosen to study rather than sleep. Certainly, being awake and reviewing material helps with its later recall. However, research in recent decades is showing that when we sleep, our brains work to reactivate learned material, strengthening memories from a more labile state to one that is more resistant to forgetting—a process known as memory consolidation. This unconscious review of material during sleep may parallel the revision one would engage in while awake. The environment of sleep itself, having a unique neurochemistry and free of external stimulation, is a special state that may be particularly favourable for memory consolidation.
Sleep does not only help with the consolidation of facts. Research suggests that sleep also aids in the consolidation of procedural memories, such as the fine-motor skills involved in surgery, or the fluid enactment of the sequence of steps involved in time sensitive procedures. Sleep also helps with prospective memory, which is the ability to remember to perform an intended task at the right time, e.g., remembering to check on a patient at the end of the day, or remembering to wear and sync your Oura ring at a specific time!
People do many things to try to remember all that they need to. They set reminders on their phones, make to-do lists, and spend time revising or practicing. Sleep complements all these, making these strategies even more effective. While research on the specific conditions that are most optimal for boosting memory is ongoing, it is presently clear that sleep does have benefits for memory that are not merely the result of feeling well-rested and attentive. With irregular schedules it is not always easy to get enough sleep, but knowing that it can improve memory function gives us one more reason to try to optimize the sleep opportunity for junior doctors.
By Ruth Leong and Azrin Jamaluddin