Do We Learn While We Sleep?
Isn’t sleep supposed to be a time to rest the brain and body?
Doesn’t the brain just, kind of, shut off when we’re sleeping?
Well, if you’ve read some of our previous blogs, you know that sleep is a great time for the brain to clear out the waste, as well as support memory and learning.
The brain actually works very hard while we are asleep. It performs multiple tasks to help us fall and stay asleep.
The brain also learns and remembers how to perform physical tasks. During REM sleep, the brain converts short-term memories to long-term memories. This is a process of moving the memories from the motor cortex, where we initially learn physical tasks, to the temporal lobe, where they become muscle memory.
Sleep also plays an important role in learning. It creates and consolidates our memories, linking the more recent to earlier recollections. Researchers are studying this process of the brain in hopes that they can help people learn new things while they’re asleep.
While we can’t learn new information as we sleep, researchers believe they can help our brains target specific information and throw out the not-so-important stuff. The impact of this research can affect multiple fields. It can help us to learn languages in less time, help stroke victims regain motor skills, and help those suffering from PTSD reduce terrifying memories.
And, all this while we sleep? How is that possible?
The process of Targeted Memory Reactivation (TMR) uses noises and odors to strengthen the memory-making processes that happen during the day. Scientists know that our senses are powerful keys to memory and this is true in both sleep and wake. During sleep, the brain replays and strengthens memories. It embeds this information into our existing networks of knowledge. Scientists think that connecting noises and scents with the embedding process will strengthen the memories and, therefore, convert them into long-term memories quicker.
Studies show that memory consolidation occurs mainly during slow-wave sleep. One study done in 2007 tested the theory of scent during memory consolidation. “While people learned to associate pictures of cards with certain locations on a computer screen, the scientists pumped in the scent of roses. This order wafted into the background, became linked in people’s minds with what they were learning. Those who were re-exposed to the aroma during sleep had an edge in recalling the placement of the cards.” Their research found that it worked the same with other scents and sounds.
Now scientists are focusing on boosting motor skills as well as explicit memories. They are trying to utilize TMR to help those suffering from PTSD. The idea is to lessen the negative feelings associated with the memories.
Targeted Memory Reactivation could eventually be used to learn a foreign language. Imagine going to sleep and waking up knowing how to speak Russian!
There are many ways that this research can benefit us, whether it’s recovery from an illness or learning something new. While still in its early stages, the possibilities are endless. Just imagine what we could do if we could help our brain to distinguish between worthwhile and insignificant information!
… sleep happily ever after …