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Professor promotes the importance of sleep

| Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sleep deprivation is an epidemic across college campuses and its pernicious effects often go unnoticed, according to Jessica Payne, Nancy O’Neill Collegiate Chair in Psychology.

Payne delivered a talk titled “The Neuroscience of Being Your Best Self” in Jordan Hall on Wednesday and focused on the importance of sleep.

“I’ve spent years and years working with students and now over 10 years working with corporations and it’s very clear to me, you are truly going to be at your best — and that means best in terms of grades, best in terms of athletic performance, best in terms of creativity — you really need three fundamental cognitive functions in order to do that,” Payne said.

According to Payne, these three factors are good sleep, moderate stress and positive emotions. Payne said these cognitive functions are all interrelated and and often declines and deprivations in one will lead to damaging consequences for the other two.

“The good news is that for any one of those areas you decide to get better and really improve, you’ll see improvements in the other ones as well,” Payne said.

Quantity and quality of sleep are often the most lacking components of optimal brain function for college students, Payne said, because of bad habits like all-night cramming sessions or simply underestimating how much sleep is necessary and healthy. Payne said as much as college students might wish they could somehow live without sleeping at all, sleep remains an integral and essential aspect life for not only humans, but also for animals.

“There is no known way to replace or effectively simulate sleep,” Payne said.

Therefore, Payne said, it is vital to maximize the effectiveness of sleep and encourage students to take stock of their own sleeping habits and work to improve on them.

Payne said the mean amount of sleep needed is approximately eight hours, but follows the a normal or bell curve distribution meaning the amount of sleep needed varies somewhat per person. However, Payne, said the vast majority of people will fall in seven to nine hour range.

“Regardless of the specific amount that you … need to be at your best, you really need to go ahead and get that because if you don’t, you might as well be drunk — but you’re going to be having a lot less fun,” Payne said.

Often the reason behind people neglecting to get proper sleep, Payne said, is a mistaken belief that sleep is a relatively useless inactive state

“Most people think sleep is a dormant state; most people think sleep is a time where the brain is just switched off, [where] it’s powered down like a computer, it’s shut down like a car, it’s resting, maybe it’s rejuvenating but it’s not doing anything,” Payne said.

Payne said this widespread fallacy lingers despite contradicting well-established science.

“Your brain when you’re asleep is highly active, intensely active,” Payne said.

According to Payne, some regions of the brain including the hippocampus, the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex are, in fact, more active during sleep than wakefulness. These regions are associated with memory and learning, making them especially important for college students, Payne said.

“We can test for memory in two ways: for specific details and to remember the gist,” Payne said.

Payne said studies have shown that both kinds of memory are dramatically impacted by how many hours the subjects of the test had slept.

Moving on to the other two factors influencing brain function, Payne said, moderate stress is beneficial for the cognition. This is described by the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which shows an absence of stress results in apathy, boredom and tiredness, while a surplus of stress is debilitating, Payne said. However, college students are much more likely to be over-stressed than suffering from a lack of stress, so they should focus on stress reduction methods such as getting adequate sleep, exercise, social support and relaxation training, which includes yoga and meditation, Payne said. According to Payne, relaxation training and meditation in particular can lead to profound and positive changes in the brain.

“When we talk about building neural real estate, I’m not saying you have to go to Tibet and become a monk for 20 years,” Payne said. “I’m saying look at this eight-week experiment where people had no idea what meditation even was and for eight weeks, [then] they meditate for 20 minutes a day and, all of a sudden, at the end of eight weeks, they see all these changes I’m talking about.”

Payne said creating a positive emotional state is also vital for college students, and she recommends many of the same methods for reducing stress, but also emphasizes emotion regulation strategies. These techniques range from simply recognizing and labelling emotions to reappraising negative situations and training yourself to present to the moment, Payne said. 

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