How cool are our night brains?

sleepingbabyIt’s been known for some time that sleep is more than a break from activity. Sleep plays a role in memory and learning. The brain replays some of the day’s activity; if you were studying or working on learning a new skill the replay enhances the brain’s retention. What is relatively new is that this retention has been established by discovering new connections made in the brain during sleep.

I used to advise my math students not to stay up all night studying, but to get a good night’s rest. I wasn’t testing memorization of math facts, but the ability to problem solve based on the course content. The advice was based on my view that a rested mind thinks better than a sleep-deprived one.  I also advised daily homework would prepare them well. Now, I have the argument that daily study rather than cramming for exams means more nights of sleep learning. It’s always fun to have one’s intuition verified.

The neatest thing about sleep-learning is a new study suggesting your sleeping brain will attend to what you most want to learn. How smart is that? This single study astounded researchers at Swansea University. Eighty non-Welsh speaking participants were given Welsh words before sleep or a period of wakefulness. Those who were shown words before sleep did better in incorporating the words into long-term memory. The surprising thing was the correlation between interest in learning Welsh and retention. The more you wanted to learn, the better you did. I’m sure that’s also true of our day brains. The study was done by Prof Mark Blagrove from Swansea University with colleague Elaine van Rijn and will appear in the Journal of Sleep.

No doubt, further studies will be undertaken to confirm the results, but I don’t find the idea astounding. It seems logical that our night brains, being the same gray matter, would be in concert with our day brains. I guess my desire to learn Spanish as a retirement activity wasn’t strong enough. I have forgotten most of it.


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