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4 Ways Sleep Can Rapidly Improve Brain Function

Updated: Apr 28

Even one night of better sleep may help your brain.


  • Sleep has known positive associations with long-term health, but it also seems to significantly enhance short-term brain function.

  • Sleep may help us to balance out our emotional state, especially when it comes to negativity.

  • Research shows that sleep is key to long-term memory storage, and may also help enhance short-term focus.

  • Getting good sleep may help promote our creative abilities, especially by increasing insight in problem-solving.

In the last several years, books and articles have increasingly drawn attention to the key role of sleep in preserving good health. In the long run, better sleep may have protective effects on risk for everything from heart problems to depression to Alzheimer’s disease. But researchers have also shown that sleep appears to grant us many benefits on a far shorter timeline. Here are 4 ways in which just a bit more good sleep seems to support healthier brain function.

1. Calmer emotions. Fascinating research in the last several decades has shown that sleep plays a role in improving emotional regulation. Unfortunately, sleep deficit may bias our emotional state towards the negative. In one study from 2020, participants were shown pictures after 5 nights of sleep restriction or 5 nights of good sleep. Compared to when they had slept well, people who were sleep-deprived perceived positive and neutral pictures as more negative. In brain imaging scans, sleep deprivation has been linked to changes in the amygdala, a key brain hub in emotional processing. In fact, some of these changes have been shown after as little as one night of sleep loss.

2. Improved focus. Trying to stay focused on any task after sleep deprivation can be a major challenge. Researchers have examined the connection between sleep and the ability to maintain attention to detail, finding that lack of sleep impairs sustained attention, an effect that is reversed after sleep. Importantly, this inability to maintain focus may also make it harder for us to respond to changes in our environment. This could contribute to everything from a worse performance at work to a higher risk for car accidents.

3. Better memory. Scientists are still discovering the incredible range of sleep’s brain benefits. However, sleep’s key role in memory formation is certainly at the top of the list. The formation of long-term memory is thought to be one of the major functions of sleep, a process that involves areas of the brain including the hippocampus and the cortex.

Though good sleep may have multiple positive effects on memory, its role in consolidation (converting fresh memories into stable long-term memories) is thought to be key. Clinical studies show an association between sleep restriction and worse long-term memory. Recently, some have taken this science a step further, boosting sleep’s positive effects on memory through specific sounds and electrical current delivered to the brain during sleep.

4. Enhanced creativity. We’ve all heard stories about a sudden burst of insight coming from a dream. Now research has shown that the link between creativity and sleep is much more than anecdote. Sleep is specifically thought to improve creative problem solving, and it may be the case that both REM and non-REM sleep have synergistic roles in this process. In practice, sleep has been correlated with increased insight into new ways of solving problems, and may be even more beneficial for difficult problems.

How to Get Better Sleep

In the modern day, sleep can often seem an afterthought, something we do only when we’ve accomplished other higher-priority tasks. Yet research has convincingly revealed that our brains and bodies perform far better when we get a solid dose of good sleep each night. When it comes to optimizing brain function, few interventions can compare with the positive effects of 7-9 hours of high-quality shuteye each night.

To this end, developing a consistent wind-down routine to help your brain prepare for solid sleep can be a great start. Some basic tips on this front include limiting electronic media and other excessive blue light exposure before bed, trying to get into bed at the same time each night, and lowering the temperature of your room by a few degrees.

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