A Personal Take on Memory and Sleep

I’ve been griping about my memory for years. Only recently, though, have I come to realize that the problem might have something to do with insomnia and sleep.

In Monday’s blog I complained about how I have to grope these days to find the right word. Retrieval from the stockpile of words in memory isn’t as easy as it used to be.


Actually, I’ve been griping about my memory for years! Only recently, though, have I come to realize that the problem might have something to do with insomnia and sleep.

The memory issues I’m talking about are different from the ones associated with aging, where you forget new information, like the name of the movie you saw yesterday, or forget you’ve told someone a story, and tell it again and again. My problem has to do with forgetting factual information and chunks of my life. This is not a new thing for me. I’ve struggled to recall facts and personal experiences for years.

“Do you remember the time when. . .” my sister and brothers will begin, and nine times out of ten, I draw a blank. It’s not just the small stuff I’ve forgotten, it’s major occasions like attending my brother’s college graduation or my parents hosting a family reunion. Other family members are quick to recall these events and fashion them into credible slices of life. Yes, I think, it could have happened exactly this way. It probably did. Yet nothing they say—no reminder of a gaffe someone made or a gift I received—is enough to jog my memory.

So much of who we believe ourselves to be depends on remembering: This is what I did, this is what I said, this is what happened, this is what I know, this is why I think the way I do. If some of this foundation is missing, how can it not affect our sense of self? “Who am I?” is a question I find myself asking now and again, and it’s unsettling. I’m more vulnerable to stresses that come my way in the present without a firm grip on what I’ve learned and where I’ve been in the past.

Insomnia and Memory Impairment

While writing my book, I came across research suggesting that insomnia may be a factor in memory impairment. Normally, the consolidation of facts and personal experience in long-term memory takes place at night, when new memories are processed so they become more resistant to loss and deterioration. The result is that sleep actually improves your mental hold on learning that took place the day before. So if you’re studying for a test, getting a good night’s sleep after learning word pairs will actually enhance your performance the following day.

But this enhancement did not occur in insomniacs who participated in a study conducted a few years ago in Germany. In this experiment, insomniacs and normal sleepers were asked to learn 40 word pairs. Cued with one word, the subjects had to recall the other. The performance of the two groups was identical during the learning phase. The number of learning trials they needed in order to remember at least 24 words was the same, and the number of words they recalled in the last trial of the evening was the same.

But what a difference the night made! In the morning, as expected, the normal sleepers remembered more words than they had on the final trial the night before. But alas for the insomniacs, they recalled fewer words.

Is insomnia a factor in my struggle to remember? It may be. The effects of sleep deprivation on memory is a hot topic in sleep research today, so if you, too, wrestle with sleep and memory, stayed tuned!

If you’ve got memory issues, I’d love to hear your comments. Does your memory seem to be affected by your sleep?

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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