For a lot of us, remembering names and faces, especially of people we haven’t seen in a while, can be a challenge. I’ve experienced this plenty of times, often blanking on someone’s name right in the middle of telling a funny story, which piqued my curiosity as to why it happens — and it turns out that not getting enough deep, uninterrupted sleep could be the culprit. New research reveals that catching quality Zzzs boosts our brain power, which in turn helps us recall names and faces more easily.
The Link Between Deep Sleep and Memory
In a new study published in NPJ: Science of Learning, researchers from the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University theorized that activating memory during sleep improves a person’s ability to recall faces and names. To test out this theory, they recruited 24 participants between the ages of 18 and 31.
Researchers had the participants study the names and photos of 40 people from a hypothetical Latin American history class and another 40 from a Japanese history class. During the process, the team played soft music in the background.
After studying these 80 names and faces, participants took a nap. When they reached a state of deep sleep, some of the names (and the soft music) were played softly in the background, and when they woke up, they were tested on their ability to recall the names of the people they’d seen in the photographs.
As expected, the researchers found that participants who had their memories reactivated during sleep were better at recalling the names and faces they had studied. However, the team didn’t realize just how important deep sleep would be for that process. Subjects who experienced sleep disruption (some of the participants woke up when they heard the spoken name cues) had a harder time putting names to faces.
In contrast, subjects who had uninterrupted deep rest were better able to recall the names once awake. “We already know that some sleep disorders like apnea [when breathing stops and starts during rest] can impair memory,” lead study author Nathan Whitmore explained in a statement. “Our research suggests a potential explanation for this — frequent sleep interruptions at night might be degrading memory.”
This suggests that sleep helps us recharge our brains so we can stay alert during the day. And if we’re not getting enough shut-eye, it’s harder to focus and really take in important information like someone’s name. Thankfully, fixing your sleeping patterns might be easier than you think.
How to Get a Uninterrupted Night of Sleep
If you’re tossing and turning at night, or getting up frequently, trying some of these tricks could help you get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep you need to stay mentally sharp. And if you regularly struggle with insomnia, it’s worth talking to your doctor about what could be causing your sleeplessness — and how to get relief.
Adding foods like hemp seeds, pistachios, and kiwi to your diet promotes better sleep because they’re rich in a hormone called melatonin. This hormone works to control your sleep-wake cycle so that your body can rest as needed. (Just be sure to avoid nighttime snacking in bed!)
A piping hot cup of tea is a go-to nightcap for many, but drinking a glass of water with a pinch of sea salt 30 minutes before bed is just as effective a sleep aid. This salt and water combo allows your body to absorb more of the liquid, so you won’t have to make those nighttime trips to the bathroom.
While it’s tempting to read a book on our tablets or scroll on our phones at night, the blue light exposure from those devices make it harder to fall and stay asleep. To rest easier, try not to use your phone or other electronic devices for at least an hour before bed. (Keep those screens in another room to avoid the urge to use them!)
If it’s tricky for you to remember names and faces, it’s good to know that you can use sleep as a natural tool to sharpen your memory!