Lack of sleep from all-nighters negatively impacts cognition

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Riley Schwengel
Writer

The all-nighter is one of college’s most famous rituals. It begins with a student realizing they are underprepared for an exam and ends with a sleep deprived scholar groggily tidying up their floor littered with energy drinks and notes. At every exam I take, it seems that there is always a group of people complaining, but in some ways bragging, about the amount of time they spent studying and about how little sleep they got the night before. Students seem to get a weird pleasure in comparing hours spent awake, desperately cramming information into their heads; it’s the college equivalent of comparing battle scars and wounds from fights past.

What many students do not realize is that the all-nighter is actually extremely damaging to one’s study efforts. Instead of dedicating one’s night to studying, it would be far more advantageous to just go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.

When the brain makes a memory, it first encodes the information as a short-term memory, which is useful for everyday tasks but not for exam studying. Memories that need to be remembered at a later time are encoded as long-term memories in a process called  “consolidation.” Studies have shown that consolidation occurs at a much faster rate when one is sleeping. Simple experiments have been conducted in which participants learn information and then must take a test on that information, but one group of subjects is allowed to sleep before the test while another is not. The group that sleeps always does better in every experiment conducted. When a student stays up all night repeating information over and over again, much of that information is not actually being processed by the brain and is instead soon lost with all the other short term memories.

Students should really try to avoid all-nighters whenever possible. If you find yourself cramming for an exam, it’s probably better to just stop and sleep. The brain will better consolidate whatever you have already learned, and whatever you would have studied in the early morning hours may not have been stored anyway.

Chronic all-nighter-ers have often complained that they don’t want to endure the torturous ritual but that they have no choice because there is just too much material to go over. To this I offer a simple solution, start studying earlier and partition the work. If you have four chapters to study and four days to do it, study a chapter a day. This is the method I personally use when I have an upcoming exam. While I may have to start studying earlier, I have less work per day. This keeps me sane and lets me get a good night sleep every night. To this day, I’ve never done an all-nighter and never plan to. In the few times when staying up late would have been an option, I always opted for sleep and it always worked out for the best. So the next time you are up late with an exam the next day, don’t spend the entire night fretting and worrying, just go to bed and let your brain do its job.

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