Columns / Discourse / April 20, 2011

The Neuroscience of: Pulling an all-nighter

Your parents told you. Your RA told you. Your grandmother even told you. Don’t wait till the last minute to study—it never works! But every term I find myself in Founders at 5 a.m. working on a paper or studying for a test I should have prepped for weeks ago. When we attempt to cram three chapters into our heads in one night, what happens to our nervous system? Here’s a run down of structures, chemicals and brain regions involved in pulling an all-nighter.

First on the list and the easiest to identify: sleep deprivation. Funny story: in 1963 a 17-year-old broke the world record for staying awake—11 days with no aid of drugs. By day two he was irritable, nauseated and had trouble remembering things. By day seven, his EEG no longer showed alpha rhythms, which indicated that his brain wasn’t really conscious even though he was awake. He turned more or less into a zombie. This is because diffuse modulatory systems control the rhythm of your brain waves and the cerebral cortex (everything not brainstem). They also affect the thalamus (center-ish region your brain), which is responsible for blocking the flow of sensory information up to the cortex during sleep. [If you remember one thing from my column I would hope it’s this: the thalamus is the overall gateway to the cortex. Without the thalamus you’re a vegetable.] All-nighters mess with the function of the thalamus.

During sleep the brain also operates on brain stem modulatory neurons. These neurons use norepinephrine (NE), acetylcholine (ACh) and serotonin (5-HT). Why, you ask? These enhance the awakening-state, like shooting out of bed realizing your alarm clock was set wrong, you’re almost late for class and experiencing that wave of panic during that realization. Or if someone has ever woken you up with a bucket of cold water? The water jolted your consciousness which flooded NE in your brain. Since the thalamus has been cutting off sensory info in your sleep to your cortex, your consciousness has no idea what’s going on. It thinks you’re being attacked.

When you’re up all night cramming, you’re also overworking your hippocampus (dead center of your brain and the key player in memory). This causes your thalamus to release cortisol (a stress hormone) and is responsible for that irritability.

Tips to make that all-nighter more successful: sadly there are few. One study noted that overhead lighting helps stimulate neural productivity—that makes sense, right? Dim lighting plus being tired equals a greater chance of falling asleep face-first in that book. Coding is another strategy and typically what people try to do. They do this by making associations. I remember trying to make studying the process of the eating pathway match up with the theme song from “The Simpsons.”

Point blank: an all-nighter is a no-go for long-term storage. At best, memories like this last a few hours. Just enough for the test but not long enough that you actually learn anything. Fewer alpha waves, less neural connections and the result is less memory-recall ability.

Remember that your classes aren’t just about the grades; so don’t let that pressure you into harming your body with an all-nighter. But not preparing for a test isn’t exactly the best excuse for an extension. Take my advice and plan ahead. twenty minutes a day per subject is the best way to study. The brain is lazy and hasn’t evolved as fast as technology. It wasn’t meant to sit in front of a computer all-night and read. It was designed to live in the wild and be in constant social interaction with other humans.

Gabe Paz

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