How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead”: those words have been a mantra to hard-liv­ing types every­where since War­ren Zevon first sang them back in 1976, but as Berke­ley sleep sci­en­tist and Why We Sleep author Matt Walk­er sees it, tak­ing them to heart is a “mor­tal­ly unwise” choice. The exam­ple of Zevon him­self, who died at the age of 53, would seem to val­i­date that judge­ment, but it also comes backed by seri­ous research. In the TED Talk “Sleep Is Your Super­pow­er” above, Walk­er builds on what we all know — that we need to sleep, reg­u­lar­ly and with­out inter­rup­tion — by explain­ing “the won­der­ful­ly good things that hap­pen when you get sleep, but the alarm­ing­ly bad things that hap­pen when you don’t get enough, both for your brain and for your body.”

Not only, for exam­ple, do “you need sleep after learn­ing to essen­tial­ly hit the save but­ton on those new mem­o­ries so that you don’t for­get,” you also “need sleep before learn­ing to actu­al­ly pre­pare your brain, almost like a dry sponge ready to ini­tial­ly soak up new infor­ma­tion.”

As any­one who has tried to pull an all-nighter before a big test has felt, sleep depri­va­tion shuts down your “your mem­o­ry inbox,” and any incom­ing files just get “bounced” with­out being retained. But deep-sleep brain­waves, as Walk­er puts it, act as a “file-trans­fer mech­a­nism at night, shift­ing mem­o­ries from a short-term vul­ner­a­ble reser­voir to a more per­ma­nent long-term stor­age site with­in the brain, and there­fore pro­tect­ing them, mak­ing them safe.”

Improp­er sleep threat­ens not just learn­ing but life itself: com­pro­mised sleep means a com­pro­mised immune sys­tem, hence the “sig­nif­i­cant links between short sleep dura­tion and your risk for the devel­op­ment of numer­ous forms of can­cer” now being dis­cov­ered. “The short­er your sleep, the short­er your life,” as Walk­er stark­ly puts it. As far as how to improve your sleep and, with luck, elon­gate your life, he has two main pieces of advice: “Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, no mat­ter whether it’s the week­day or the week­end,” and “aim for a bed­room tem­per­a­ture of around 65 degrees, or about 18 degrees Cel­sius,” slight­ly cool­er than may feel nor­mal. We’d also do well to remem­ber the impor­tance of break­ing the habit of stay­ing on the inter­net late into the night — or more specif­i­cal­ly, hav­ing stayed up well past mid­night writ­ing this very post, I’d do well to remem­ber it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sleep or Die: Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Matthew Walk­er Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imper­il Our Health

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Cre­ativ­i­ty

Dr. Weil’s 60-Sec­ond Tech­nique for Falling Asleep

240 Hours of Relax­ing, Sleep-Induc­ing Sounds from Sci-Fi Video Games: From Blade Run­ner to Star Wars

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Dymax­ion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vig­or­ous” and “Alert”

The Pow­er of Pow­er Naps: Sal­vador Dali Teach­es You How Micro-Naps Can Give You Cre­ative Inspi­ra­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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