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People say practice makes perfect. Not true. We say everyday practice makes perfect. This is thanks to two phenomena that happen in your brain: myelination and slow-wave sleep. Let’s take a small detour into the world of neuroscience.

Some people treat their brain as this mysterious, magical three-pound black box that takes in information from the world and spits out thoughts and words. That was a fair estimate maybe a few hundred years ago, but not anymore. We have learned enough about the brain in the past two centuries to develop treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy, insomnia, certain brain tumors, ADHD, and more.* We know enough about the brain to decipher what song someone is listening to by simply using non-invasive devices.* And we also know enough to see what exactly happens when we learn a new piece of information.*

Every thought you’re having right now is being electrochemically powered by almost 100 billion neurons that are firing chemicals called neurotransmitters. You have probably heard about the neurotransmitter dopamine.

When you listen to your favorite song or eat food that you crave, dopamine gets released in your brain and makes you feel rewarded enough to seek out that activity once more.* Like dopamine, your brain has over 200 identified neurotransmitters.

These neurotransmitters are released by the axon terminal of one neuron to the dendrite of another through a bridge called the synapse. If the neuron were a person, the axon would be their body and the dendrite the top of their head. While the information in our brain travels pretty quickly already, myelination helps increase the speed further.

Let’s say you’re dying to become a guitar maestro. When you begin playing the guitar on day one, a specific set of neurons fire together to make that happen. As the days pass by and as your fingers begin to bleed, the set of neurons that tend to fire together are slowly becoming best friends. As they fire more and more together, eventually, they end up conveying the information faster because of something called the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is the coating around the axon* (akin to a warm clothing around the neuron-person). This coating is made up of proteins and lipids and slowly starts wrapping around the axon as it repeatedly fires. By doing so, the neurotransmitter can now travel through the axon body much faster, with lesser distraction.

How do you improve the myelin content around the axons?

Through consistent practice.

Researchers compared the brain scans between expert musicians and ordinary people, and found that there was a direct correlation between practice and the amount of myelin.* The more someone practiced, the more myelin content their brain had. The same applies to your GRE and TOEFL practice, and pretty much any skill you want to master. Rather than cramming five days’ worth of content in one day, spread out your practice so you trigger the set of neurons required more often. And they’ll do the rest for you.

Myelin helps you learn faster, whereas sleep helps you retain what you learned. Sleep fascinated scientists for a long time, but without the right tools to peer into a brain, they couldn’t explain much of what happened. Then 1953 saw a major breakthrough. Sleep was not a passive, homogenous process anymore.

Eugene Aserinsky, then a doctorate student, found out that sleep involved rapid eye movements, especially when his subjects were dreaming.* This gave rise to the REM cycle we all hear about now. Soon enough, another cycle, one that is quieter and gentler, called the non-REM (or NREM), was discovered in 1968.* The NREM cycle was further divided into four stages, and then reduced to three in 2007. One of these three stages, Stage 3, is called the slow-wave sleep (SWS) stage. You might have come across this term through its more popular alias, deep sleep.

Deep sleep has the highest arousal thresholds, meaning it is hardest to wake someone up when they are in this stage of sleep. And if you do manage to wake them up, they would feel extremely groggy (and grumpy). If you were sleep-deprived for a week and finally got a good eight hours in, researchers would see a spike in your deep sleep levels, an indication that this is the stage much needed to make you feel refreshed.* And this stage is also popular for another key function: memory.

When you’re asleep and enter stage 3 of the NREM cycle somewhere in the first half of the night, something mysterious and magical begins to occur between two parts of your brain. Your neocortex, the most advanced part of your brain that differentiates you from a chimpanzee, starts to originate slow oscillations. A few inches away, in the temporal lobe, your hippocampus, a seahorse-like structure that helps with memory (among other things), repeatedly re-activates the information that got encoded in your brain the day prior.* Slowly, there is a movement of this newly encoded memory from your hippocampus to your neocortex, where some of it gets stored for the long-term (with repeated practice, which we’ll get to soon).

It is as if your hippocampus is re-enacting the information you learned the previous day like a movie, and your neocortex is watching this with rapt attention, and encoding it in its own memory system.

danger Sadly, people gravely underestimate the importance of sleep. So much so that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared sleep disorders to be a public health crisis in 2018.*

We know many of you have indulged in all-nighters for exams. We did too. However, the GRE and TOEFL are not your typical exams that can be mastered overnight. It requires learning a monumental amount of information and rigorous practice. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep here.

If you are looking to improve yours, below are some proven methods:

  • sticking to a routine—something your brain really likes

  • staying away from your phone and laptop screen for an hour, just before you sleep

  • eating dinner that is low in carbs (meaning no rice, bread, or lentils)

  • setting your room temperature to 20 degrees Celsius

  • tracking your sleep via external devices (such as a FitBit or an Oura ring).*

More specifically, SWS is known to help with declarative memory, which involves learning non-emotional facts and concepts.* You know, similar to learning vocabulary words and mathematical concepts for your GRE and TOEFL.

So, long story short, with a combination of daily practice and sufficient sleep, you will be able to ace your exams.

Remember, Remember

We know there is a lot to remember with these types of exams. Guess what though? We also know a lot about how our brain works, which can be used to our advantage. Enter, mnemonic systems.*

A mnemonic (m is silent) device, or a memory device, is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory. Mnemonics make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval. Mnemonics aid original information in becoming associated with something more accessible or meaningful—which, in turn, provides better retention of the information.

The oldest known mnemonic technique is called the method of loci* (pronounced low-sigh), where loci is the plural of the word locus, meaning place. You might have heard of this as the mind palace technique if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fanatic.

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