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Sleeping is a Good Memory Enhancer

German researchers say the best way to not forget something important is to sleep. Based on their experiments, the brain tends to scramble a recent memory when we’re awake. Research shows that fresh memories are temporarily stored in the hippocampus. It is thereafter moved to the neocortex for permanent storage. But pending transfer, memories are very fragile and tend to get easily corrupted and subsequently lost. This is especially so during wakefulness.

Susanne Diekelmann and three others from the University of Lubeck performed memory experiments on 24 individuals who were asked to remember pictures of animals and objects drawn on cards. During this exercise, they were also exposed to an unpleasant odor.

Forty minutes later, half of the volunteers who stayed awake were asked to memorize a slightly different set of cards. But before beginning the exercise, they were made to smell the same scent. Its purpose was to activate their memory of the first exercise.

As for the other 12 volunteers, they slept briefly before taking the second exercise. But during their snooze, they were also exposed to the same odor.

The results of the exercises revealed that the sleeping volunteers fared better, averaging an 85 percent memory retention compared to 60 percent of the non-sleeping volunteers.

Ms. Diekelmann attributes the reactivation of memories to sleeping. While the volunteers slept, significant bits of memory were moved from the hippocampus to the neocortex.

“Based on brain imaging data, we suggest the reason for this unexpected result is that already during the first few minutes of sleep, the transfer from hippocampus to neocortex has been initiated,” Ms. Diekelmann said.


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