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This one weird trick could improve your law school performance: Sleep

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I’ve recently learned of an amazing trick that can help law students improve every aspect of their law school experience – from preparing for class, to memorizing case names, to studying for exams, to handling stress. And it’s absolutely free. So what is this amazing, no-cost, pharmaceutical-free trick?

Sleep. Specifically, 8 hours every night. I know, I know, that sounds impossible, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But first, here are just a few things that scientific studies have shown that an 8-hour sleep gets you:

  • Improved memory. In one study, people were given a bunch of facts to memorize before going to sleep. The more non-REM sleep (explained below) they got, the greater their ability to recall those facts in the morning, according to Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley, in his book, “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.” So if you need to commit all of those Constitutional Law case names and holdings to memory, you need sleep.
  • Greater ability to synthesize information. In one study, Walker wrote that participants were taught individual “facts” (A > B, B > C, C > D, D > E, E > F) before they went to sleep. Only those who obtained the REM sleep that comes primarily in the last two hours of an 8-hour sleep could make the associative leap required to see that, for example, A > F. “It is sleep that builds connections between distantly related informational elements that are not obvious in the light of the waking day.” And “building connections between distantly related informational elements” is pretty much essential to law school success. That’s the core task involved in such things as synthesizing rules from a set of cases; analogizing from a court decision to your client’s situation even though the facts of the two cases seem quite different on their surface; understanding how the interpretive tools or policy concerns you learned in week two of Administrative Law apply to the material you cover in week ten; and recognizing the core principles that are at stake in Constitutional Law when they show up again in Fed Courts.
  • Better management of emotions. In one study, participants viewed a set of emotional images once, and then a second time twelve hours later. Half the participants viewed the first set in the morning and the second set in the evening (with no sleep in between) while the other half viewed the first in the evening, got a full night’s sleep, and then viewed the second set. The subjects who slept demonstrated a significant decrease in their emotional response to the second viewing (measured through their own reporting and MRI images of their brains) compared with the group that didn’t sleep. And it’s those last two hours of sleep that seem to do the most work of helping us heal from painful emotional experiences. At some level, you probably already know this; most of us have had the experience of waking from a good night’s sleep feeling at least somewhat better about some emotional setback we suffered the day before. And law school is full of emotional ups and downs, often caused by understandable anxiety over things like grades, jobs, and debt, as well as distress about injustices in the larger world that drive many students to seek a law degree in the first place. Sleep can’t pay your loans or right societal wrongs, but it can protect your mental health while you tackle those things.

Why it works

How does sleep manage to work all of this magic in 8-hour increments? Scientists are still figuring out the details, but a key component seems to be that our brains cycle between two kinds of sleep at night: REM sleep and non-REM sleep. (REM stands for “Rapid Eye Movement” – because during REM sleep your eyeballs rapidly flit around underneath your eyelids.) Your brain cycles between the two kinds of sleep in 90-minute increments, but as the night progresses each increment contains a higher proportion of REM sleep than non-REM sleep. That means that the last two hours of an 8-hour sleep are rich in REM sleep, while the preceding 6 hours are not.

Those sleep cycles help explain why you can’t just fall behind on sleep during the week and make it up on the weekends; by the time the weekend rolls around, you have already missed the crucial sleep windows your brain needs. In other words, your brain spends each night processing what you did that day; if you don’t give your brain a full 8 hours of sleep tonight, then even if you sleep extra hours 3 days from now it’s too late for your brain to process today’s events.

Here’s why: First, you need adequate sleep the night before you learn something new. Your brain uses that time to clear out your limited short-term memory – by shifting important information to long-term storage and dumping stuff it doesn’t need to save – freeing up your short-term memory to absorb new information the following day.

Second, you need adequate sleep the night after you learn something new, to give your brain that opportunity to move the new information to your long-term memory, and then to draw the connections between bits of information. And while non-REM sleep is when most of the work of memorization takes place, it’s during the dream-rich REM sleep that most of the higher-order work occurs. That means that if you sleep only 6 hours, you are mostly missing out on the very kind of sleep you need for things like maximizing your ability to make connections between information and whittling down the painfulness of the previous day’s emotions.

8 hours of sleep? But I’m so busy!

So that’s the scoop on why you should sleep 8 hours at night. But what about the how? Law students’ schedules are packed with not only coursework, but also extra-curricular activities like journals, pro bono activities, and student organizations. And of course many students have obligations outside of law school – whether because they are parents of young children, because they need to work to support themselves, or for some other reason. And for all law students it’s essential to set aside time for self-care activities, whether that’s exercise, catching up on Netflix, baking a batch of muffins, or whatever.

Sleep can help with at least some of these things, in large part by enabling you to work more efficiently when you’re awake. If you have to keep reading the same passage multiple times because sleep deprivation is sapping your concentration, then more sleep means you can get through the same amount of material more quickly. And since more sleep means better recall of what you’ve learned, you don’t have to learn it again when it comes time to prepare for exams. 

Some final thoughts . . . and a challenge

You are entering a profession that places little value on sleep. In fact, for some lawyers, working ridiculous hours is seen as a sign of commitment to the job or the importance of their work. “Getting by” on little sleep is something you’ll hear attorneys brag about. That’s really bad for the legal profession and for the health of attorneys who are part of that profession. I wish I had the cure for such unhealthy attitudes about sleep.

For now, though, take this challenge: Pick one week and commit to a full 8 hours of sleep every night. For maximum effect, try to go to bed around the same time every night. (Other helpful tips: keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.) I suspect that you will be amazed at the difference you’ll feel, especially if you are used to sleeping 6 hours a night or less on a regular basis. You might even decide to make a habit out of getting a good night’s sleep.

And finally, if all of this hasn’t yet convinced you to prioritize sleep, consider this: A good night’s sleep makes you more physically attractive. In one study Walker cited, participants were photographed twice – once after getting 5 hours of sleep and once after getting 8 hours of sleep. Then the researchers brought in observers, who were shown the photographs. The observers rated the sleepers more attractive in the photos taken after they’d slept for 8 hours. I make no claims that this finding will help you in law school, but I thought you might want to know about it.

Happy sleeping!

All of the information in this blog post comes from the excellent book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,” by Matthew Walker (Scribner 2017). I highly recommend reading the whole thing – just don’t stay up too late to do so!

Beth Wilensky Beth Hirschfelder Wilensky is a clinical professor at the University of Michigan Law School, where she has taught legal analysis, research, writing, and communication since 2003. Prior to that, she practiced law at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C.