Learning while we sleep, is it possible?

A researcher at the University of Michigan believes people are learning while they sleep.  It doesn’t mean that a college students can study for test in their sleep, or that an older person will instantly wake up and remember the list of names they couldn’t recall the day before, but it does mean the brain is processing information when we’re not aware of it.

The belief
“We speculate that we may be investigating a separate form of memory, distinct from traditional memory systems,” said Kimberly Fenn, assistant professor of psychology and lead researcher on the project.

“There is substantial evidence that during sleep, your brain is processing information without your awareness and this ability may contribute to memory in a waking state.”

The study involved 250 people and each person’s “sleep memory” seemed to be different.

“You and I could go to bed at the same time and get the same amount of sleep,” Fenn said, “but while your memory may increase substantially, there may be no change in mine.” She added that most people showed improvement.

It’s also another argument for getting a solid night sleep.  Studies show few people actually get the 7-8 hours of sleep recommended.

What the study means for the future
Fenn is interested in knowing how this can effect our everyday learning.  Take teenage students, for example, studying for a test.  What would be the best way for them to learn the information and have their “sleep memory” enhance that knowledge?  It’s a question Fenn and her team at the University would like to find out.

“This is the first step to investigate whether or not this potential new memory construct is related to outcomes such as classroom learning,” she said.

It’s the first step of many into a new memory space that Fenn says wasn’t known about until now.  It could have implications in memory loss as many elderly people look for new ways to keep their mind sharp.  The findings are highlighted in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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