How your brain deletes information – in order to help you remember
- An important way to protect your memory and ability to concentrate in older age
- Why a full night’s sleep is unnatural
There was an old adage my Dad used when he wanted me to think for myself…
“Use it or lose it.”
It seems that the latest brain science has caught up with this old adage. Because, apparently neuroscientists have a saying too, which goes like this:
“Neurons that fire together wire together.”
What they mean that the more active a neuro-circuit in your brain is, the stronger it becomes.
For years, scientists have looked into ways this fact about the brain can help us learn new things and memorise more stuff, avoiding cognitive decline.
But here’s the cutting edge bit….
It’s what your brain DELETES that’s important
It turns out that one of the keys to a strong memory and better concentration is your brain’s ability to clear out the circuits.
I know that sounds weird. But researchers are now looking into something called “synaptic pruning”. As you sleep at night, things called ‘Glial cells’ clean up your neural pathways, like a gardener might rake leaves from a path.
To give them space to work, your brain cells shrink by 60%!
Your brain needs to do this in order for you to be able to remember more, concentrate harder and learn new skills the next day.
So one of the best things you can do for your brainpower is to take a nap.While the worst thing you can do is sleep badly and deprive your brain of its DELETE button.
According to motivational authors Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane, “Thinking with a sleep-deprived brain is like hacking your way through a dense jungle with a machete. Its overgrown, slow going, exhausting.”
They say that even a quick 10-20 minute nap could clear out your synapses.
This backs up what brain scientists have been saying for a few years now…
Clearing your brain of toxins
In 2013, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) ran research which showed that, during sleep, your brain cleanses itself of toxic molecules.
It’s all thanks to the ‘glymphatic system’ which lets fluids flow around your brain and is most active when you’re asleep. Your glial cells control the flow through this system, by shrinking or swelling. As you nap, they allow more fluids to come sluicing around your brain, cleaning out toxins.
Research published in Science in 2014 backed this up. They found that when you sleep, your brain is far from inactive. In fact, your brain goes through a series of massive cellular changes as it deals with the information you received when you were awake.
Professor Wen-Biao Gan, of New York University, said of his study: “We have shown how sleep helps neurons form very specific connections on dendritic branches that may facilitate long-term memory.”
So what does this all mean?
Well, in the first instance, it shows you how important it is to get some sleep. It is so crucial for the long-term health of your brain, including memory, concentration and ability to take in new information.
A younger brain is a younger you!
To help you get the best sleep possible, I’d recommend that you take Magnesium to boost your serotonin production. This puts your body into a sleepy state the natural way. Here’s a reliable source.
But is it really just about getting a good NIGHT’s sleep?
Experts are beginning to wonder.
In 2014 Vincent Walsh, professor of human brain research at University College London, urged that bosses should let staff take naps at work.
‘It’s best to give your brain downtime,” he said. “I have a nap every afternoon.”
He recommended between 30 and 90 minutes sleep in the afternoon for the best effect. Walsh also suggested that some staff should be allowed to come in late if they need to in order to get the right amount of sleep.
His point wasn’t just a scientific one, but a social one…
Why a full night’s sleep is unnatural
Before the industrial revolution (and the invention of electric light), it was common for people to sleep more than once a day. In a book called At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past, historian Roger Ekirch shows that most of us used to have two shorter sleeps rather than one long one. Some people would get up at night, cook food and even visit neighbours.
It’s known as ‘segmented sleeping’, and it could be the answer not only to many sleep problems, but also issues with memory as we age
In 2014 the novelist Anne Rice said: “It’s important for us to learn from history here, that it may not be all that normal to sleep through the night.”
Unfortunately, not all of us have the luxury of trying this out, as work and family commitments mean we don’t have the freedom to experiment.
But if it’s something you can try, then I’d recommend you give it a go. Perhaps try a 40-minute siesta after lunch in the Mediterranean style!
Even if you can’t – it’s good to be aware that being awake in the middle of the night is not necessarily a problem, and you shouldn’t let it stress you out.
In 2012, sleep psychiatrist Gregg Jacobs told the BBC: “For most of evolution we slept a certain way. Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology.”
So if you have a problem with waking in the night, this is thousands of years of human evolution that’s causing it. Perhaps use it to think, meditate on your dreams, write your diary, or allow you imagination to drift. If possible, try and re-work your morning routine so you can sleep in, allowing you that hour or two of wakefulness in the night.
Finally, if you’re interested, I’ve written something about your body’s natural ‘circadian’ clock and how it could be affecting your kidneys. It’s free to read on the People’s Doctor website here.