Sleep or Caffeine: Which is Better for Memory?

A 2008 study looked into the effects of caffeine on memory, and compared it to the effects of taking a nap instead. If you’re one of the many people who rely on a morning (or afternoon) jolt of coffee to get your brain moving, you might be surprised at what the researchers found.

Caffeine has long been used to stimulate the mental processes, whether consumed as coffee, tea, chocolate, or the modern-day “energy drinks” that can contain several times the caffeine levels of coffee. Most people drink some sort of caffeinated beverage to wake up, and in this fast-paced world we live in, caffeine is often a substitute for sleep. When it comes to memory, it’s not a good substitute at all.

As we’ve discussed before, getting enough sleep is extremely important for your brain and memory, and ensures that you’ll have enough time to unconsciously process and store the information from the day’s input. What this recent study shows is that even a short nap can give the brain the time it needs to do that processing and storage, which means that it will be easier to remember things. While caffeine definitely makes you feel sharper in the moment, it’s not a guarantee that you’ll remember what it is your studying during that time period.

The researchers found that people in their study who had a nap after a learning task could remember and perform that task better than those who had a dose of caffeine beforehand. Given these results, it appears that if you’re headed into a university class or a departmental meeting, rather than trying to perk up your brain with a cup of coffee, you’d do better to focus as much as possible on the information being presented, and then head to a quiet place to take a short nap. Since your unconscious picks up as much information as your conscious mind, you don’t need to worry about missing too many details – though of course it’s a good idea to take notes, which both increases your ability to remember and gives you a quick review sheet to read after your nap to consolidate the information in your brain.

Do you think we might see a “Sleepbucks” store on every corner in the future?

References: Mednick, S., Cai, D., Kanady, J., and Drummond, S. University of California, San Diego. Behavioral Brain Research (2008).