Updated: Jan 6, 2021
Sleep: we all need it, and most of us aren't getting enough of it. With busy, packed schedules, it's tempting to sacrifice sleep in order to get more done. Especially when it comes to line memorization, with performance dates closing in, it often seems to make more sense to stay up and cram rather than sleep. But I'm here to tell you we've got it backwards. Sleep isn't just an inconvenient set of hours when we're offline and out of commission. SLEEP IS ESSENTIAL TO LEARNING. It consolidates memories and sharpens motor skills. If you're not getting enough sleep, you are effectively handicapping your brain.
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In this post, I'll show you how to strategically use sleep to give your memory a turbo-boost.
1. Sleep 7-9 hours every night.
Many people like to think they can do just fine on less sleep, but the great majority of us need between 7-9 hours every night. It may seem like a tall order if you're a busy person, but once you understand the importance of sleep, you should be willing to make it a priority. Getting enough sleep every night ensures good general maintenance of the brain. The glymphatic system clears out waste products in the brain during sleep, and the various phases of sleep organize and consolidate the lessons and experiences of the day.
We know that sleep massively improves retention and comprehension of whatever was studied the day before. Sleep is divided into a few different phases, and they each have their role in learning. REM sleep (well-known for producing dreams) primarily assists pattern recognition and creative problem solving. Stage 2 improves motor skills and hand-eye coordination, so-called "muscle memory." Stage 3 and 4 are the phases of slow wave deep sleep, and they consolidate declarative memory such as newly learned facts, words, dates, events, etc.
So when it comes to acting and line memorization, is motor memory or declarative memory more involved? It seems clear to me that acting uses plenty of both. Our acting would benefit from getting ALL the phases of sleep!
Here are a few tips to help you get good quality sleep every night:
Dim the lights at night - Our brains are very sensitive to light. Exposure to light regulates our sleep-wake cycle. In the evening, to prime your brain for sleep, dim the lights in your environment. A great option is to turn down your normal lights and use a Himalayan salt lamp or two to give your place a nice, relaxing glow.
Specifically avoid blue light at night - In particular, blue light causes the brain to remain wakeful, and blue light is emitted by all of our digital devices (alarm clocks, microwaves, routers, DVRs, etc.) and screened electronic devices (laptops, phones, tablets etc.) At night, stay away from screens or download an app that purposely blocks the blue light. There are several free ones out there. Another option is to wear blue-blocking glasses.
Expose yourself to natural light during the day - Getting more bright, natural light during the day, especially in the morning, also helps to regulate your circadian rhythms. Get outside, and get some sun!
Limit or avoid caffeine after noon - Yes, I know all you coffee lovers out there may balk at such advice. But if you're having trouble falling asleep at night, this is really something worth trying. Individuals metabolize caffeine at different rates, and for some people, those afternoon cups of coffee can still be coursing through their veins at night. Try avoiding caffeine consumption in the afternoon hours for a few weeks and see what it does for you.
Keep your bedroom dark and cool - Again, exposure to light disrupts sleep, so keep your bedroom dark. Think about getting blackout curtains. Also, the core body temperature decreases when going to sleep. To keep from tossing and turning, keep the room fairly cool.
Warm the feet and hands at bedtime - Somewhat counter-intuitively, warming the feet and hands with a hot bath or by wearing socks can help you fall asleep because it causes the blood vessels to dilate, redistributing the heat in your body and lowering the core body temperature.
Take magnesium - Magnesium (a nutrient most of us are deficient in) is known to help the muscles in the body relax, so it's a great thing to add to a nighttime routine. Topical magnesium, in the form of a body spray or flakes that can be dissolved in a bath, is especially great for this purpose.
Use natural remedies - Essential oils such as lavender or chamomile are great for relaxing at bedtime. I caution against using essential oils too much directly on the skin. (Essential oils are highly concentrated and potent; overuse topically can cause you to develop an allergy.) It's best to inhale them. You can put them in a diffuser or put a couple drops on your pillow.
2. Study your lines (or any learning material) right before going to sleep.
Multiple studies show that studying before bedtime is the best for effective recall. It seems the close proximity between acquisition and consolidation of information is what makes this so efficient. Other good times to review material is soon after waking up and a couple hours before or after the midway point between waking and sleeping.
3. Take naps during breaks from memorizing lines.
Most of us naturally experience a dip in energy around the middle of our days. This is often a great time to take a nap. Especially if you're not getting enough sleep at night, naps are essential. Naps of just 1-1.5 hours can contain all the stages of sleep. And as I already discussed, studying lines right before sleeping is the best for recall and retention. Naps are amazing, so take advantage of them and use them strategically! Study your lines, take a nap, then return to the material when you wake up. This will also take advantage of a learning strategy called spaced repetition. (Check out this post to learn more about that.)
Want to learn more about the brain and sleep? Check out the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.
Ready to learn more? Check out my FREE MASTERCLASS, Memorizing Lines the Smart Way
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