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Let’s Talk About Dreams! Part Three

So my last blog post I talked about how slow wave sleep (the big dip at hours 1, 2, 4 and 6 in the graph) is responsible for consolidating memories of what happened during the day, and how REM sleep (the dark blue crests at the top of the sleep stages) are what are responsible for rote memorization.

Knowing this is how our sleep cycle has an effect on memory, let’s talk about what you can do to get the most from it. 

sleep graph

First off, since you can expect 4-5 instances of REM sleep a night, that is about 4-5 opportunities for your brain to remember new tasks you give it. This doesn’t mean it hits the “Save file” button 4-5 times, it means that there are opportunities to save pieces of a process. If you are trying to cram for a test and still get frustrated why it doesn’t work, the graph to the right is why. If you study something new in smaller bursts, or make a behavior change in smaller bursts, over a longer period of time, it will be consolidated more completely since there were more nights in a row where your brain could consolidate parts of the process.

There’s another quirk of memory to be aware of that can be helpful. Sometimes, when we have to memorize things in order, we might get frustrated that we can’t quite recall all of it. This is normal. Some things you might study get forgotten. This is because your brain tends to see some types of information as more important.
When we try to remember a sequence of things, we tend to remember the beginning of a sequence and the end of a sequence. This is called the primacy and recency effect, respectively. Your brain is really good at consolidating those memories first, partially because it likes to draw boundaries around information, and fill it in later.


I can not state this hard enough: this is why cramming does not work.  When people try to study a lot of information all at once, their brain will only prioritize the first and last bits of that big chunk.  Even if you were to study for 8 hours, your brain will only care about that starting point and ending point. (And you would care about a lot of wasted time.)


Instead of looking at this like a fault, take note of what your brain is really eager to commit to. If you were to break down a big list into smaller chunks, and study each one individually, more frequently, your brain would draw the beginning and end of a smaller list, closer together.  Once that smaller list takes little effort to remember, you can move on to the next one. (Attention High School Students Who Have To Memorize The Periodic Table or Shakespeare: That’s how you do it.)


If you are looking for tools to help supplement your study routines, check out programs like the Mnemosyne Project or Quizlet.


If you’ve found these blogs about dreams, sleep and memory helpful, or you have more questions about how the brain works, I’d love to hear back from you! I can be reached at

Let’s Talk About Dreams! Part Two

In my last post on Let’s Talk About Dreams! Part One, we talked about the relationship between dreams and REM sleep. This time I’d like to introduce you to another type of sleep.  Yes, there are multiple types – in fact, it’s better to take a look at the following picture to explain how there can be more than one kind of sleeping since it can get technical.

sleep graphAs you can see, REM sleep is the state closest to waking.

We have to talk about the deep sleeps too; at stages 3 and 4.  These are called slow wave sleep (aka… The deepest kind of sleep that you fall to before coming back up and experiencing REM again). This is a period where your brain is repairing itself from the kind of mental activity you spent during the day.  It’s also  the time when sleepwalking, bedwetting, and night terrors happen in children (which all include a kind of bodily-control element to them). Both REM Sleep and slow wave sleep serve a very important function: memory consolidation. REM sleep and non-REM sleep have different roles in making sure that the content of your day makes it from short-term memory to long-term memory. Without restful sleep, our memory suffers!

In order to be able to talk about just how that happens, we need to talk about two different types of memory in addition to our two types of sleep.

One type of memory is declarative memory (sometimes referred to as explicit memory or episodic memory). These are the memories that you can talk about casually, like that time you first took a driving test and left your mixtape on and the instructor complimented you on your ability to parallel park and create play lists and you felt like you just raised the bar for driver tests. Or that time in middle school where you totally caught your best friend chewing on a gum eraser from the art room and they lied and told you it was gum and when you asked for a piece of gum they got really defensive and you are sure it was a bold faced lie.

The other type of memory is called non declarative memory (sometimes referred to as implicit memory). These are the memories you rely on academically, such as memorizing a list, remembering how to do math, or remembering things in order, like the alphabet… or your home phone number… or how to tie your shoe.  This is the type of memory that matters when you are trying to learn something new and retain it.

REM sleep and Non-Rem sleep seem reasonable to be paired with declarative and non-declarative memory consolidation respectively, but some studies are suggesting they’re actually reversed. Learn more by checking this information out: orøvn

REM sleep seems to play a bigger role with consolidating the rote memorization, and slow-wave sleep where you don’t dream seems to consolidate memories of what happened during the day, episodically.

Next time I will talk more about consolidation and how you can take advantage of how it works, but for now, think of consolidation as the way a computer tries to save a file, or the way your phone syncs. Because they exist as a transfer. This is why, when you wake up during or at the end of a dream, you start to immediately forget the details of what happened in the dream. Your brain was using that conscious space to move some files around, and knows that what you experienced wasn’t important to its task, even if the meaning of the dream was important (for this, I recommend keeping a dream journal!)

There’s more to be said about learning and dreaming, but it deserves its own blog. Stay tuned!




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