To Remember It, Sleep on It

A recent article1 reports an interesting experiment2 illustrating the role of sleep in memory. They had 191 adults perform different memory tasks, for example, learning word-pairs. Approximately half of the adults were told to expect a memory retest 9 hours later. The remainder were misled and told that they would be performing a different kind of task. Both groups were re-tested and those who expected the retest recalled 12 percent more word pairs than those who slept with no expectation of a test. Their brain waves were monitored during their sleep and those who were anticipating a test exhibited more slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep is known to be linked to memory consolidation.

Sleep alone did not significantly improve memory. Those participants who were not expecting a retest performed just as badly regardless as to whether or not they had slept before the exam.

The principal author of the report, Jan Born of the University of Tubingen, noted that “There is an active memory process during sleep that selects certain memories and puts them in long-term storage.” Another memory researcher, Penny Lewis of the Univerity of Manchester who also studies sleep said that the study is “very convincing.” She also noted, “It looks like if you tell someone something is important, it gets enhanced more.”

Historically, sleep has presented a mystery. We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping and the question has been why. Sleep is both necessary and beneficial. It has been theorized that memory consolidation is one of the benefits of sleep. This study indicates that an intention to learn improves memory consolidation during sleep.

I have read that Leonardo da Vinci would go over his notes before going to sleep. Apparently, he had some insight that doing so would cause his mind to keep working on this information during sleep. This would appear to be a good general process.

Students should realize that one of the worst ways to prepare for a test is to pull an all-nighter. Sleep is critical to test performance. So get the studying out of the way before going to sleep and let the enhanced memory consolidation proceed.

1(2011). Sleep Sorts the Memory Wheat from the Chaff, New Scientist, 5 February, 8.

2Born, J. (2011). The Journal of Neuroscience, DOI:10.1523/jneurosci.3575-10.2011. 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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