Mom knows best:  if you want to learn, you need to sleep.

A new study shows that dreaming is an important part of that process.

Robert Stickgold, the director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, Massachusetts ... and his colleagues asked 99 college students to memorize a complex maze on a computer. The researchers then placed the students inside a virtual, 3-D version of the maze and asked them to navigate to another spot within it. After doing this several times, half of the participants took a 90-minute nap while the other half stayed awake and watched videos.

When the students were given the maze test again five hours later, the nappers did better than the students who had stayed awake, even those who had reviewed the maze in their heads. However, the nappers who dreamed about the maze — one described being lost in a bat cave — performed 10 times better than the nappers who didn't.

The students who dreamed about the maze did poorly on the test the first time around — which may not be a coincidence, the researchers say. If a task is difficult for you, your brain seems to know it, and you may be more likely to dream about it than if the task were easier.

It doesn't even need to be a deep sleep, as the researchers found when they monitored the brain activity of the students while they slept. Although the deep slumber known as rapid eye movement (REM) is most closely associated with dreaming, the students' dreaming and learning occurred after as little as one minute of non-REM sleep.

Porter's immediate and excellent suggestion was that the researchers use as a control group, not students who watched videos, but students who stayed awake but otherwise were not allowed to do anything distracting.  The sleeper's minds were free to continue to work on the problem, whereas watching videos would not only divert attention from the task, but would actively drive out the newly-learned information.  Porter suggested the control group be required simply to sit and do nothing for that time, but you can't ask a chronically sleep-deprived college student to sit still for 90 minutes without falling asleep.  Perhaps they could go for a walk instead, or do some other activity that lets the brain free-wheel.

Since the nappers had better results than students who mentally reviewed the maze (apparently before or after the videos, though the article doesn't say), the free-wheeling part is probably important.  I know my own brain continues to work on problems if I set them aside for a while and do tasks that don't require much high-level brain power.

But what I was learning last night that involved secret agents, super powers, and shredded carrots?

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 23, 2010 at 7:24 am | Edit
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