Boost Your Memory While You Sleep

Stimulation during sleep may reinforce learning

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Trying to master “Call Me Maybe” on piano? You might want to try playing the song on your stereo while you’re asleep.

While many studies have shown that sleep can help you retain information, receiving stimulation while you snooze may reinforce skills that you’ve already learned.

"Listening while sleeping may help you learn it."

James Antony, a professor in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, recently led a study to see if existing memory could be improved by receiving external information during sleep.

Antony and his associates taught 16 participants to play two artificially generated melodies.

After learning to play the music, the subjects took a 90-minute nap. During the participants’ sleep, researchers presented one of the tunes they had played, but not the other.

Using electroencephalography, a method to measure the brain’s electrical activity, scientists made sure that musical cues were played while the subjects were in “slow-wave sleep.” This stage of rest that has been linked to forming memories.

After their naps, subjects played each of the tunes. Participants made fewer mistakes performing the tune they had heard in their sleep, compared to the one that had not heard.

“Our research shows that memory is strengthened for something you've already learned," said Paul J. Reber, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern and a co-author of the study.

"Rather than learning something new in your sleep, we're talking about enhancing an existing memory by re-activating information recently acquired."

Reber added that findings from this study suggest that stimulating the memory during sleep could help other types of learning. "If you were learning how to speak in a foreign language during the day, for example, and then tried to reactivate those memories during sleep, perhaps you might enhance your learning," he said.

Antony notes that electrophysiological signals during sleep correlated with the extent to which memory improved. "These signals may be measuring the brain events that produce memory improvement during sleep," he said.

Investigators said that the study raises many questions: Can listening to the right thing during sleep improve learning for musical, athletic, linguistic or other skills?

Can useful memory changes build up over longer periods with extended cues played in sleep? Do sleep cues ever have poor effects on sleep quality?

The authors’ primary hope is that methods used in their study may be applied to further explain brain mechanisms during sleep, which may reinforce daytime learning.

This study was published June 24 in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. No conflicts of interest were noted.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 27, 2012
Last Updated:
July 1, 2012