Learn while you sleep? Memory reactivated

Posted at 6:45 AM, Jun 25, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-25 06:45:23-04

(WTVR) – The next time you want to nail that melody you’ve practiced, you should listen to it while you sleep.

New research from Northwestern University suggests that memories can be reactivated during sleep and storage of them can be strengthened in the process. 

In the Northwestern study, research participants learned how to play two artificially generated musical tunes with well-timed key presses. Then while the participants took a 90-minute nap, the researchers presented one of the tunes that had been practiced, but not the other.

By using EEG methods to record the brain’s electrical activity, the researchers ensured that the soft musical “cues” were presented during slow-wave sleep, a stage of sleep previously linked to cementing memories. Participants made fewer errors when pressing the keys to produce the melody that had been presented while they slept, compared to the melody not presented.

If the study conjures ideas of the age-old myth that you can learn a foreign language while you sleep, well you’re close, the critical difference is that research shows memory can be strengthened for something you’ve already learned, rather than learning something entirely new.

The researchers are now thinking about how their findings could apply to many other types of learning.