Sleep is crucial for many reasons. It supports the immune systemhelps the body repair itself, and more. And according to new research from the University of California in San Diego, sleep may also be critical to our ability to learn as we age.

Studying How Sleep Affects Memories

To conduct this study, researchers simulated and examined different brain states (think waking versus sleeping), specifically looking into how new memories are encoded during sleep—and how old memories are maintained. Based on their observations of neural networks during different brain states, it appears sleep plays an important role in storing new memories and saving old ones by replaying them.

“Memories, even old memories, are not final. Sleep constantly updates them,” explains professor and lead author of the study Maksim Bazhenov, Ph.D., in a news release. “We predict that during the sleep cycle, both old and new memories are spontaneously replayed, which prevents forgetting and increases recall performance.”

Why We Need Sleep For Continuous Learning

This discovery, according to Bazhenov, could explain how the brain is able to store multiple memories. Think of it like taping over a VHS but winding up with two movies on one tape; while we sleep, particular neurons will repeat and encode multiple memories, old and new.

“We learn many new things on a daily basis, and those memories compete with old memories,” he says. “To accommodate all memories, we need sleep… [Sleep] makes it possible for different memories to coexist in the brain.”

The Takeaway

As we get older, our ability to try new things and encode new memories is crucial to our overall wellbeing and quality of life.

“Sleep may be critical for making possible what we call human intelligence,” Bazhenov notes. “The ability to learn continuously from experience, to create new knowledge, and to adapt as the world changes around us.”

And aside from highlighting the importance of getting enough sleep, the researchers say they hope their findings encourage more research and development into sleep tech that could improve memory and learning, particularly as we age.

Until then, if you needed more convincing to get a good night’s sleep, let your memories be your motivation and prioritise those zzz’s.