Dreaming helps learning27th April 2010
People who nap and dream about the things around them tend to have
better memories than people who do not, according to a recent US study.
The researchers found that naps helped people to make more permanent memories of the things they had learned.
They also found that people who dream about doing something end up doing it better than people who have not dreamed about doing it.
For the study, the researchers presented 99 volunteer subjects with a computerised 3D maze.
The subjects were given an hour to wander the maze, trying to find their way to the end as quickly as they could.
After that, half of the volunteer subjects slept for an hour and a half, while the other half was allowed to read or relax, but not sleep.
Then the researchers awakened the subjects who were dreaming, and asked them to describe their dreams.
After they had finished their 90 minutes of rest, all of the study participants went back to the maze.
Erin Wamsley, a research fellow in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, said that she noticed improved maze navigation in four study subjects who slept after being asked to memorise the maze.
These four people who napped after first being introduced to the maze had dreams about the maze itself, and were able to find their way back to the same point in half the time that it took the other study subjects.
Overall, the four subjects who dreamed of the maze had a 10% accuracy boost in their scores.
The researchers said that they believed the dreams people had about the maze were signs that some parts of the brain were hard at work encoding memories about the maze.
Lead researcher Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School said that he believed dreams might reflect the brain's attempt to find associations for memories that could make them more useful in the future.
Wamsley said that the research team had been interested in previous studies showing rodent brains in identical firing patterns while navigating a maze, and when sleeping afterward.
She said that he wondered whether or not replayed memories would be consciously experienced by humans.
The researchers said that, since the learning gap between people who dreamed about the maze and people who did not was so wide, the finding had a very high statistical significance.
Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist, said that none of the subjects were very good at the maze in the beginning.
He said he believed that, in dreaming, the brain rummaged through everything that had happened during the day and found the things that really gripped people, forcing them to continue to process things.
One of the study subjects who had dreamed about the maze simply heard the music that had played along with the simulation, while another remembered seeing different people in the maze's various checkpoints, and yet another only dreamed about searching for things in a maze.
Stickgold said that he believed sleep might be the time when the brain tries to find associations it would not notice during waking.
He said that the brain probably does this by focusing on weak associations.
For their next study, the researchers are planning to include new features in the maze, such as images and colours, which they hope will generate more dreams among the participants.
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