Study: too little sleep may help brain work

Michaela Saunders

Perhaps all-nighters aren’t so fruitless after all.

A University of California study released last month suggests that brain function actually increases after 35 hours without sleep. The study contends that the pre-frontal cortex, which aids in the functioning of short-term memory, becomes more active in compensation for the effects of sleep deprivation.

The study also asserts the parietal lobe of the brain, responsible for the collation of information, becomes more active as a result of sleep loss.

However, many ISU experts are not buying the idea that an all-nighter can be an effective mode of studying.

Dr. Malhar Gor‚, physician at the Student Health Center, said he finds it difficult to believe that the brain might work better the longer it was active.

“I am unaware of the parameters involved in this study, but what I have read sounded a little nebulous,” Gor‚ said. “Very few things can increase function after extended, continuous use. An internal combustion engine may, but the brain is a completely different system.”

Gor‚ said even if one section of the brain is stimulated through sleep loss, it would not necessarily mean the whole brain would benefit.

“Short-term memory is only one task of the pre-frontal cortex. The brain is very complicated; different portions do many things,” he said.

Ron Peters, professor of psychology, said he also finds the study’s results hard to swallow.

“I haven’t seen this particular study, but the question becomes ‘The brain is more active than what?’ During [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep, the brain is extremely active,” Peters said.

Peters said going without sleep is possible but not recommended for studiers because the effects of sleep deprivation are contrary to the purpose of an all-nighter.

“People can go for extended periods of time without sleep — but it is certainly not healthy,” he said. “Behavior deteriorates, and the ability to concentrate is lowered due to sleep deprivation. The best thing to do during a stressful exam period is to sleep well.”

Gor‚ said the amount of sleep needed for each individual varies, though, so recommendations for studying should always be taken with a grain of salt.

“The amount of sleep a person needs is a very personal characteristic. Many people need eight or more hours [of sleep] in order to function, while other people claim to need much less sleep,” he said.

Vesna Hampel, graduate student in psychology who works with Iowa State’s Academic Learning Lab, said all-nighters should never be used as means of studying.

“For the most part, all-nighters are not beneficial and merely are the result of poor planning early on in the semester,” Hampel said. “It is important to make the best possible use of your time, so all-nighters can be avoided.”

Tracy Regan, resident academic coordinator for Linden Hall, gave presentations on the “right way to pull an all-nighter” to Linden residents last semester. Regan said she thought the California study might have some merit.

“I’d believe [the study]. I’ve had to stay up for 48 or 50 hours before,” said Regan, sophomore in mechanical engineering. “After that point, it seems like you don’t need sleep anymore.”

Because so many students need, or choose, to pull all-nighters for studying, Regan felt providing some information on the right way to do it is a good idea. She said she constructed her presentation based on tips given by study experts from the University of Texas.

“Sometimes, and only sometimes, all-nighters can be beneficial,” she said. “Exercise, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking lots of water and keeping your mind working were some suggestions they gave. It also said that if you can stay up until 3 [a.m.], you’re home free.”

However, Denise Allumbaugh, a graduate student in psychology who deals with stress management at the Student Wellness Center, said the key to good studying is time management — not burning the midnight oil.

“Make a list of everything you need to accomplish, break it up into tasks, prioritize those tasks and then reward yourself when those tasks are completed,” Allumbaugh said. “Rewards can be anything from dinner with friends to reading a book for fun — anything that is fun and relatively healthy.”