middle of the intersection. But now it’s clear that during the night we consolidate the information we took in during the day and make it our own.

Uncovering this fact has put sleep deprivation in a whole new light. Not only does it cause us to function at a much lower level, it also causes us to learn at a much lower level. For teens that can mean not only getting C’s instead of A’s but forgetting how to execute a football play, play a classical piano piece, recreate the perfect sunset on canvas, or do complex math problems on the SAT. According to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it can also mean that students are less motivated to do their best at school and less receptive to teaching. As one teen said, “I miss out on a lot of details because I lose focus and the ability to concentrate when I’m severely sleep deprived. I’m also quite forgetful when I’m tired.”

Just how does sleep deprivation prevent us from learning well? To understand that, you need to understand what’s involved in learning and how the brain takes in information and makes it available to us when we need it. Let’s take a look at that now. (One note here: When I talk about learning, I’m going to use the terms “memory” and “learning” interchangeably, because they’re so closely linked that they’re really the same thing. When you remember something, you have learned it.)

How We Learn

The first thing to understand is that the brain is not like a computer memory chip on which information is stored. The brain is plastic, which means it constantly changes and adapts to the data it acquires. When we acquire information during the day that we want to save as a memory—the fact that Eleanor Roosevelt helped found UNICEF or that to open the front door we have to turn the deadbolt key to the left—the information goes into a particular region of the brain, called the hippocampus. But that region is only a holding zone, and the information is actually in jeopardy there, because before the brain can process and consolidate it, it might get involved in other activities. Say, for example, you call Information for a phone number, but before you can dial it your friend calls and you spend five minutes on the phone hear-



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement