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How You Can Reinforce Learning While You Sleep

Experimental psychologists have found that memory of learned processes, such as learning to play a specific piece of music, can be activated during sleep and strengthened in the process. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers at Northwestern University have found that memories of learned processes can be activated during sleep and strengthened in the process. In an experiment, participants learned to play two short musical pieces and then took a nap. While they slept, scientists played one of the tunes that had been practiced, but not the other. “Participants made fewer errors when pressing the keys to produce a melody that had been presented while they slept, compared to the melody not presented.” By measuring the brain’s electrical activity, scientists ensured the music was played during deep sleep, rather than REM or while dreaming. 

What’s the Big Idea?

For as long as playback devices have existed, people have dreamt of effortlessly learning a new language while they sleep. Unfortunately, memory strengthening techniques only work for processes you have already learned. “If you were learning how to speak in a foreign language during the day, [however], and then tried to reactivate those memories during sleep, perhaps you might enhance your learning,” said Paul J. Reber, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern and a co-author of the study. Scientists are seeking to improve memory storage by understanding how the brain works when you are asleep. 

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