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Neuroscientist, Teacher Dr. Cowdin Advises Students on Importance of Sleep

Neuroscientist and Visitation science teacher Dr. Nancy Cowdin addressed the student body this week about the scientific benefits of sleep and discussed how it affects memory, emotions, and learning. Nancy has a M.S. and a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is a sleep researcher.

Watch her full sleep presentation for students here.

“You sleep almost 26 years of your life,” Nancy says. “This fact suggests to us that sleep must have a really vital function.”

Nancy presented research findings that suggest that teenagers' lack of sleep is due to “the perfect storm” of four things: biology, technology, social pressure, and homework. “Up to 70% of high school students don’t get enough sleep,” Nancy says, citing a 2006 National Sleep Foundation study.

“Sleep is a naturally occurring state in which we experience partial detachment from the world,” she says. Though the body rests during sleep, the brain is very active.

Good sleep requires adequate length, as well as sleep continuity and consistency. She advised that adolescents, like Visi students, should be getting 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night for optimal brain function. However, it’s not just about the length of sleep each night. Continuity (whether sleep is often interrupted during the night) and consistency (sleeping during the same time each night) also affect the brain’s ability to properly complete all its work during sleep.

“Sleep prior to studying is preparing the brain for learning,” Nancy says, “while sleep after learning is necessary to consolidate, or strengthen, this newly encoded information. Newly encoded information can be loosely or strongly encoded. When you have motivation to remember something, it gets more strongly coded in your mind.”

During sleep, neurons that were activated when the original information was acquired will reactivate, and strongly encoded information can be transferred to different areas of the brain for longer-term storage in memory networks. Therefore, when a person does not get enough sleep after learning, this information may not become effectively transferred to these cortical networks.

She also spoke about the different stages of sleep, including Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and Rapid Eye Movement (REM), and how each has a unique function in processing emotions and memory. By sleeping too little and not allowing the brain to properly cycle through the different stages of sleep, it prevents the brain from fully processing the past day and preparing for the next.

As a sleep researcher, Nancy analyzes brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), a process that detects and records electrical activity in the brain. In order to visually show the difference between a good night’s sleep and a bad one, she showed several students' sleep hypnograms, profiles of the various sleep stages across a night of sleep. These hypnograms belonged to anonymous Visitation students who participated in a sleep study conducted by last year’s Neuroscience class.

Ideally, everyone would get 8 to 10 hours a night with regular bedtime and wake times. “Let’s bring back the nap,” says Nancy, who received applause from the students. “There is evidence that a short nap is beneficial to memory.”

Though this presentation is not likely to change all Visitation students' sleep habits at once, Nancy hopes they took away the critical role that sleep plays in the learning process. Students, faculty, and staff were invited to participate in a “Sleep at Visitation” poll to gather sleep data from the community. Nancy will soon invite Visitation parents to share info as well.

“Getting good sleep is part of how you can maximize your God-given gifts,” says Nancy. “You have to make choices regarding your sleep. How can you maximize your potential to ‘be who you are and be that well’?”

Nancy gave a similar presentation to parents that same night.

In addition to her neuroscience degrees, Nancy has a B.A. in French, a B.S. in Education, and M.S. in Environmental Science. She has been teaching for more than 25 years at all levels of education, from middle school to college. Her research focuses on the effect of stress and trauma on emotional regulation and memory, and the role of sleep in these processes. Currently, she is part of the design team and faculty of the Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy at the Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning.

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