Sleep, teenagers and bird brains

I don’t get it.

Are you the parent of a teenager?

My condolences.

I’m kidding. I’m sure they’re lovely and we’re not talking about yours just now, just some other teenagers you might know because this won’t apply to yours.

If you are the parent of a teenager, you might be familiar with the interminable going to bed process that seems to involve more false starts than the entire Olympic track history combined and more drama than Hollywood.

Truth be told, I’ve felt like handing out awards too.

And the excuses? Seriously.

The times they are a changin’

However, it’s generally true that sleep changes for teenagers, insofar as they need more and, often, their chronotype changes. By chronotype, I mean that the time they would naturally go to bed, if the brain had its way, shifts, often to a later time, becoming more owl-like than lark-like.

We’ve covered a little on chronotypes here, and related to them, circadian rhythms, here.

Some schools recognize this, starting and finishing later to accommodate the shift. Anecdotally, they would claim they note the benefits in performance from their students.

For all that though, it’s true, despite what we know, that much of why we sleep is, still, a bit of a mystery. But one thing is for sure, and I sure wish my teenager would get it.

Sleep consolidates memory. Without good sleep, memory and, therefore, learning, suffers.

learning –> sleep –> memory –> learning –> performance

Recent work at the University of Chicago, reported here, was testing just that.

Bird brains

They were looking more specifically at learning on tasks, which involves procedural memory, as opposed to facts, which is declarative memory, and teasing out the importance of sleep in consolidating learning when there were two, competing tasks, learned on the same day.

The new study, measuring starlings’ ability to recognize new songs, highlighted how learning a second task, on the same day, can hinder performance on the previously learned task. But critically, they show also that a good night’s sleep aids the brain in keeping both  new memories.

“Starlings provide an excellent model for studying memory because of fundamental biological similarities between avian and mammalian brains”, they wrote in Sleep Consolidation of Interfering Auditory Memories in Starlings*,  published online in  Psychological Science.

“These observations demonstrate that sleep consolidation enhances retention of interfering experiences, facilitating daytime learning and the subsequent formation of stable memories,” the authors wrote.

The paper was written by graduate psychology researcher Timothy Brawn at UChicago; Howard Nusbaum, professor of psychology; and Daniel Margoliash, professor of psychology, organismal biology and anatomy. Nusbaum is an expert on learning, while Margoliash is a pioneer in the research of brain function and its development in birds.

Four and twenty starlings

There were two experiments, each using 24 starlings. They played the birds two recorded songs from other starlings and then tested the birds’ ability to recognize and, importantly, repeat, the two songs.

Side note: There’s a nod in there to an effect you might notice of recognition versus recall. Ever noticed that you might struggle to remember the words of an old song (recall) but, when it comes on the radio, you can sing along (recognition)? 

After learning to recognize the two songs, the birds were later trained to recognize and perform a different pair of songs.

The authors then examined the effect of sleep on memory consolidation.  After learning the second pair of songs, they were tested on the first, prior to going to sleep, varying the time between testing.

Learning the second pair of songs interfered with the starlings’ ability to remember the first pair, regardless of the time between the daytime testing periods. Interestingly, learning the first pair of songs also interfered with the birds’ ability to remember the second pair when they were tested on the second pair before they went to sleep.

However, when the starlings were allowed to sleep, performance increased on both pairs of songs, overcoming the interference effect. Moreover, if they were taught a new song after waking up, the starlings could still remember the previous day’s learning, despite this new interference.

“The study demonstrates that sleep restores performance and makes learning robust against interference encountered after sleep. This process is critical to the formation and stability of long-term memories,” Nusbaum said.

So here’s the take home bit

Paying attention to chronotype can be useful, if it allows full sleep and, thus, time for consolidation.

Sleep hygiene is also important for a good bedtime routine.

Poor sleep = poor learning.

No excuses!

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Memory consolidation

What do you think?

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*University of Chicago. (2013, March 22). “Sleep Critical To The Formation And Stability Of Long-Term Memories.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from



About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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