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    We're Learning in Our Sleep

    Written by

    Lex Berko


    Image via Wikimedia Commons.

    Sleep when you’re dead. That is, unless you want to learn a new motor skill.

    New research from Brown University provides evidence that the mechanisms for consolidating motor memory while sleeping versus while awake are quite different. While it doesn’t demonstrate that one is better than the other, it does provide further evidence that sleep may be necessary for some types of learning.

    During the span of the Brown study, subjects learned a basic finger-tapping task on their non-dominant hand. After training, one group of subjects slept for three hours while a control group remained awake for the same period of time. An hour after the napping team awoke, both groups were asked to tap out the sequence they had learned earlier.

    Those that had taken a kip outperformed those who had stayed up. That’s not particularly shocking in and of itself, but when the research team conducted brain scans on each group, the differences were made apparent from a neurological level.

    According to Masako Tamaki, the first author of the study, the scans revealed that “the mechanism for motor memory consolidation is different between wakefulness and sleep.” Prior to the scans, what Tamaki and her colleagues expected to see was significant “spontaneous oscillations,” or electrical/magnetic signals generated by brain neurons, in an area of the brain called the M1, which previous studies suggested had a primary role in motor-memory consolidation during sleep. However, most activity was found elsewhere in the motor cortex, in a region called the supplementary motor area, or SMA.

    Whether or not these results can be expected to extend to other motor tasks remains unclear, but Tamaki says what we can take away from these results is that “just resting while awake is not sufficient enough for [learning] to occur.”

    Although we live in a culture that prides itself on working to the bone and often views sleep as non-productive, according to these results, we need it. In the words of Tamaki’s co-researcher Yuka Sasaki: “Sleep is not just a waste of time.”

    More on sleep:

    Want to Learn New Things? Go to Sleep

    Sleep Is Really Weird, But New Evidence It Helps Your Mind