The Science Behind Memory and Sleep: How Our Brains Store and Retrieve Information


In her book The Anatomy of Anxiety, Dr. Ellen Vora dedicates a whole chapter to tiredness and its contribution to anxiety. The book is split into two sections, false anxiety, and true anxiety. Quoting nutritional therapist Julia Ross, she believes we have true emotions and false moods. True emotions occur when something steeply challenging happens. True emotions are genuine responses to difficulties in life. When you feel an uncomfortable feeling, such as irritability or anger for seemingly no reason, it’s a false mood. We search for the dots to connect and pick something in our life that must be the cause of the problem. Vora believes this is true for anxiety, a communication from the brain that something isn’t right. Often, however, that something is nothing to do with what’s happening around you, and all to do with a simple physiological imbalance, such as inadequate sleep.


It’s important to note that the feelings are the same, true anxiety isn’t worse than false anxiety, and false anxiety isn’t all in your head – it just needs a different fix. When I work with clients experiencing anxiety, the first things I want to check is your relationship with technology, the way you nourish your body nutritionally, whether you have considered food intolerances (inflammation), your lifestyle (how much time you prioritise for self-care) and of course your sleep pattern. 




Do you Prioritise Sleep?


For some reason, as a society, we don’t prioritise sleep. Often, it’s something we do as a last option when we really must. It seems to start in childhood. Why do so few children want to go to bed? For me, bed is one of my favourite places! It’s comfortable and cosy. Little feels as luxurious as curling up under a puffy feather duvet and falling into a sleep that takes me to a world of dreams. Life is too exciting for children; they fight bedtime as if the sun won’t rise again tomorrow.


As adults, the self-sabotage remains. Even when you’re not working late to meet a deadline, or trying to organise for a big day tomorrow, you say “just one more episode” or check your emails one more time. Often falling asleep on the sofa and crawling up to bed in the early hours when you wake up cold without a blanket. Or retiring to bed at a sensible time, but scrolling and scrolling until beyond midnight. Your body does an awful lot when you sleep. One of the most important things is storing and retrieving information. There is a strong correlation between memory and sleep.




Making Memories


Your brain cannot lock memories down until you sleep. You have a short-term storage facility in the hippocampus, which holds onto information when you’re awake. However, this facility is not only short term but small in capacity. When it’s full, you either stop storing memories or overwrite older ones. Neither is an ideal option!


When you sleep, during the lighter non-REM sleep, your brain transfers memories from the hippocampus to the long-term, larger capacity cortex. You wake with a hippocampus free to take on new information. Lighter non-REM sleep is more prevalent in the late morning hours, squished in between long periods of REM sleep. When you sleep for less than six hours, you restrict your brain’s opportunity to perform this function. Therefore leaving less space for the hippocampus to save new information.


Saving Memories


There are three types of sleep, deep non-REM sleep which we get early in the night, REM sleep and lighter non-REM sleep which we get later in the night. Research shows that information (facts etc) consolidation happens in the early night deep non-REM sleep. The more deep non-REM sleep, the more individuals can recall information received the previous day.


So, there you have it, if you want optimum capacity for learning and storing information, you need to get memory sleep for long enough every night. Many things cause disruption in sleep, from anxiety to lifestyle. If you’re struggling to sleep, hypnotherapy will help you. Whether you need help therapeutically, dealing with problems in your life or past traumas, or simple tools to help you fall and stay asleep.


During a free initial consultation, I’ll ask a series of questions that will give an insight into what you want to achieve, and we’ll put a plan together, together, from there. To read more about hypnotherapy for sleep please click here.