We’ve all been there — it’s the night before your 8 a.m. final and the library announces that late-night study is moving to the first and second floors. You experience a rude awakening to the sheer amount of material you have left to cram inside your brain before the morning. The question is: Do you get a good night’s sleep or do you pull an all-nighter in an attempt to succeed? 

Some swear by the all-nighter ritual, while others decide to call it a night and head to bed. But what does science say about the effectiveness of pulling an all-nighter to study? According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, staying awake for a prolonged period of time can lead to cognitive and physiological impairment at the level of alcohol intoxication. In other words, being awake for 24 hours can hinder thinking to the same extent as having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10%. 

For reference, it’s illegal in the United States to drive with a BAC of 0.08% or higher as someone over the age of 21. As you can imagine, your brain might not be at its sharpest when taking a test under these conditions.

Sleep also plays a key role in learning, memory and consolidation of information. One study investigated the effects of an all-nighter, clinically termed “total sleep deprivation,” before and after learning. The data suggested that total sleep deprivation had significantly harmful effects on the memory of learned material. The researchers found that adequate sleep was associated with priming the brain for learning and strengthening memory from the day before.

In addition, getting a good night’s sleep is important for maintaining health. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and Sleep Research Society (SRS), the recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult is 7-9 hours. Sleeping less than 7 hours on a regular basis can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, stroke and other diseases, as well as an increased risk of accidents and errors.

So, an all-nighter before a test might not be as effective as you would think. But if you do decide to tough out the night, there are some ways you can maximize your learning and retention of information. One is to make sure you stay hydrated and feed your brain with a balanced, healthy meal. The brain uses glucose as its main source of energy, but processed sugars in candy and soda burn out quickly, causing a crash in energy. Instead, opt for complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Caffeine can be helpful to stay focused, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend consuming more than 400 mg of caffeine per day. Caffeine is dehydrating, so accompany that Red Bull with a tall glass of water. 

According to the Sleep Foundation, it can be effective to take a 10-20 minute nap to help you stay alert, but avoid snoozing, as 30 or more minutes can cause you to feel groggy. Study in a room with bright lights to keep yourself stimulated. If you feel yourself falling asleep, take a walk or do a quick physical activity to refocus your mind.

All-nighters should be reserved as a desperate last resort; try to avoid them if you can! The most effective way to retain information is to give yourself ample time to learn material and space out your study sessions over a longer period of time than the night before your exam. For most college students, however, this may be easier said than done. Whether you choose to pull an all-nighter or hit the hay, Science and Tech is wishing you all the best this finals season!