Do you ever feel forgetful and a little sluggish of mind? Do you wish you could pick up new skills more quickly and easily? Here's a tip: You can boost your learning power by beefing up your sleep routine.
Researchers at Northwestern University are among the latest to demonstrate that memory and ability for a recently learned skill is enhanced and strengthened by sleep. This is just the latest in a series of recent breakthroughs that are providing us with a deeper understanding of how sleep functions in the brain to support learning and memory.
In this study, researchers had people learn how to play two separate musical melodies using visual symbols. After learning to play the two tunes, participants took a 90-minute nap. During the nap, researchers played only one of the melodies. They also monitored brain activity during the nap period, in order to present the music during slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep is a deep, non-REM phase of sleep, also known as delta sleep or stage three sleep. This is a restorative stage of sleep that has been linked in other research with the creation and consolidation of memory.
What did researchers discover?
When asked to replay the two melodies after their naps, the participants were able to re-play the song they'd heard during sleep with greater accuracy than the song they hadn't been exposed to while sleeping. Researchers also found that EEG measurements of brain activity during slow-wave sleep correlated to the degree of improvement in memory -- an indication that researchers may have been able to measure the very brain activity that was helping strengthen memory.
The investigations into the relationships between sleep, learning, and memory are an exciting and very active area of scientific research. There have been a series of studies in recent months that show the advances made in our understanding of how sleep affects the brain and, in turn, our ability to learn new skills and to transfer that new learning into long-term memory:
- I wrote about this study, which investigated the role that sleep plays in converting new learning into established memories. Researchers found that students who slept shortly after memorizing two different sets of word pairs had better recall of the information they'd learned than those who didn't sleep for several hours.
This is fascinating stuff for any of us interested in the science of sleep and the science of the brain. But it's also important information for everybody, science-buff or not: Getting regular, restful, and plentiful sleep makes our minds -- and our memories -- work better.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
Everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep™
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