Rector's message - June 2018

By Nick McIvor | Posted: Friday June 15, 2018

There is something unique that services our ability to learn, memorise, and make logical decisions and choices, that fuels our creativity, recalibrates our emotional state, and restocks our immunity to help us fight malignancy, prevent infection and ward off numerous illnesses; something that also reforms the body’s metabolic state, regulates our appetite, and supports our cardio-vascular systems – not to mention physical recovery after sporting performance. That ‘something’ is legal, free, and available to us all. It is sleep. And deep sleep is instrumental in the healthy development of teenagers.

Sleep is being seen more and more by researchers as the single most important thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day. There is not a major organ in the body or brain process that is not enhanced by sleep. In his international bestseller, Why We Sleep[1], Matthew Walker makes a strong case for seeing a recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night, including deep REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, as the ultimate source of mental and physical health; as a ‘powerful elixir of wellness and vitality’[2].

The influence of sleep in the quality of learning at school is huge. In adolescence, a remodeling of the brain takes place. It is sculptured by sleep as the brain’s connectivity is refined, and cognitive skills, and reasoning and critical thinking skills, start to develop proportional to deep sleeping[3]. Deep sleep is not the only factor in brain maturation but it has proven itself to be a critical memory aid, both before learning, to prepare the brain for initially making new memories, and after learning, to cement those memories and prevent forgetting. As we learn new information it is put in our brain’s hippocampus where short term memory is stored. It is then shifted to the central cortex for longer term consolidation. This transfer happens when we sleep. Sleep, then, prevents new information from fading away. Learning memory is boosted by sleep. And deep sleep effectively clicks the ‘save’ button on ‘newly created files’ in our learning. In deep sleep, we construct vast associative networks of information as facts and other memories are connected in new ways. This is why we sometimes gain new overarching insights and solutions to previously tough problems, or even radically new ideas, after a good night’s sleep. The longstanding advice of ‘sleeping on it’ has a sound basis in science. The positive impact of sleep is also being embraced increasingly in professional sport and in the training of skill memory. Sleep has proven to have healing effects for numerous psychiatric conditions as well.

In contrast, sleep deprivation blocks the brain’s capacity for new learning. A tired, under-slept brain is in no state to receive, absorb, or efficiently retain an education, according to Walker[4]. If we deny ourselves adequate sleep we start to lose concentration, energy levels, and reaction time (a big concern on our roads among other things). We are more likely to be in a bad mood the next day if we had a bad sleep, and to be more emotionally reactive. Aggression, bullying, and behavioural problems in children across a range of ages have been linked to poor sleep too.

If our young men make adequate opportunity to sleep, uninterrupted and without distraction, with an actual sleep time of 7-9 hours, they will learn more and retain more of what they learn. And there is a strong case for defending sleep time in our young people, rather than potentially dismissing it as a sign of laziness. Promotion of good sleeping habits may be the most important thing we can do to anchor sustained success in learning with them. Have a sleep on it!

(For useful tips on healthy sleeping go to: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/summer12/articles/summer12pg20.html)

Nick McIvor
Knowledge is Power.  Scientia Potestas Est.  Mā te Mātauranga te Mana.


[1] Walker, Matthew Why We Sleep (Penguin Random House, UK, 2017)

[2] Ibid. p340.

[3] Ibid. p90.

[4] Ibid. p312.