The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
American poet Robert Frost, in his poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening", had penned these immortal lines. These lines provided the much needed inspiration to the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, as the story goes, these were the lines that were found on a scrap of paper on his desk when he died - presumably the last words he saw.
While these lines are prized for their figurative meaning, Robert Frost and Jawaharlal Nehru, could have been a bit more aware of the importance of sleep.
It was a night I will never forget. The next day was the dreaded POM - I (Production & Operations Management) final exam. It was the last day of the term exams and in spite of whiling away my time throughout the term, I wanted to ace it. So, I was studying hard. In fact, I was running from pillar to post - from one room to another, in search of a knight in shining armor, one who could resolve my doubts, explain few of the problems how they were solved and identify some more that I could practice for the exam.
POM I was taught by Professor Sahu, a young man, who had returned from the US with a doctorate under his belt. He had a reputation of posing really tough questions in the final exams. He had a penchant for problems. And problems were something I was afraid of. Ask me the theory, and somehow, I could wing something closer to an answer in the text book. But with numbers, I was always numb!
My friend Ajay dropped in to check how I was doing. Ajay was the cool, unruffled guy. With a devil-may-care attitude, he was like the Buddha. He saw the fear in my eyes. "Don’t worry Dude. Everything shall pass away!” he said. "Yes, everything shall pass away, but will I pass this POM-I?” I wondered. Ajay patted my back, nodded in assurance, pointed me to Rajiv, and strolled away.
Rajiv, my meticulous corpo type roommate was stretching himself on his study chair. He had just finished his revision. "Rajiv, are you done?" I asked. "Yes!", he said emphatically. "Can you help me with some important problems?" I asked hesitantly. Rajiv was somehow gracious enough that night. He outlined 30 problems for me from 8 chapters and even gave me his notebook where he had solved them. Yes, Got IT!! I said to myself. I will now ace the exam!
It was 11 PM. The test was at 9 AM. So, I had 10 hours with me. 10 hours, 30 problems so, 20 minutes for each, I deduced. I decided to go for a night out and smash the POM-I exam.
When Rajiv woke up at 8:00 AM in the morning, I was still poring over the solution. I have had several cups of coffee and solved most of the problems. I had got a hang of the different type of problems. I was fairly confident of cracking the test.
As I walked to the class that morning, my eyes hurt. I felt that the 9 AM sun was somewhat brighter than other days. Effect of the night out, I thought. I will finish the test, come back and crash throughout the day.
There was a tense air hanging in the exam hall. I felt everyone was busy on their own. Like a robot, I greeted few people and responded back to them. I took my place at the right hand corner of the room, waiting anxiously for the question paper to be distributed. Soon, I got the papers. I glanced through it quickly, mentally marking out the easy, theoretical ones that I would tackle first. I realized that there were 3 subjective and 3 problem-solving based question. I started working on the subjective questions. They were supposed to be easy for me. But I had to strain myself. Somehow, the words were not flowing out smoothly from me. I had to stop, think hard and focus on it. I lost my train of thought and re-gathered them several times. I was wondering why this was happening. But with a firm focus on finishing the task at hand, I answered them.
Then I moved on to the problems. I read the first question. I grappled with the numbers, my nemesis. I could figure out that they were from the 3rd chapter. But I was not able to crack it. I decided to skip it and move to the next one. That one was easy. I started solving it. But towards the end, I could not figure out the next step. I was almost close, but not yet. So, I moved on to the last problem. Again, it was very frustrating as I knew which chapter it was from. I knew the overall concept. But somehow my mind was not clear. I attempted it based on my conceptual knowledge and gave it my best shot, which I somehow felt was not good enough.
The rest of the day, I was moving like a zombie. I had not done well in the exam and it was not allowing me to sleep. Later in the day, I slept like a log. I woke up only on the next morning. That morning, when I looked at the question paper, it seemed like a piece of cake. I was amazed.
Have you ever felt like that? A good night's sleep and then things falling in place.
Modern research proves that sleep is an essential factor in learning. When we are awake, some toxic products are created in our brain. But, when we sleep, these toxic products are washed away from our brain. This helps us to think clearly when we are awake. Thus, if you take an exam after a night out, you have bits of poison and toxins running around in your head which make your thinking hazy. Too little sleep creates more problems in life. We may have stress, high blood pressure and anxiety. If we are sleep deprived for days together, we will have problem learning and remembering different things.
During sleep, our brain consolidates our learning and memory. It goes over and over difficult concepts that we are grappling with. Sleep after learning allows brain cells to connect with other brain cells, there by strengthening the learning and moving the ideas learnt from short term memory to long term memory. Dreaming, on the things that you have learnt, in your sleep, makes the learning permanent. In fact, experts recommend using forced dreaming technique. In it, you grapple with a difficult problem or concept just before you go to sleep, then think about it while falling asleep. There is a high chance that you will dream about it in your sleep. And you may even understand the concept clearly or solve the problem that you were grappling with in your sleep. In fact, modern research has shown that when people imagine practicing a skill or sport in their dream, their performance in that activity improves in real life.
Even after I have understood the importance of sleep in learning and memory, some habits are hard to go by. One such habit is doing a night out before the exams. We all feel that unless we put in a night out, we have not put in the required effort and hours to get a good grade. For all of us who have the difficulty of shedding this habit, the celebrated American poet Robert Frost penned these lines:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Try something different before the next exam. Don’t go for a night outer. Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep well. Trust me, you will do well!