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May 05, 2010

New research - To learn better, take a nap (and don't forget to dream)

dog.jpgIt is by now well established that sleep can be an important tool when it comes to enhancing memory and learning skills. And now, a new study sheds light on the role that dreams play in this important process. Led by scientists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), the new findings suggest that dreams may be the sleeping brain's way of telling us that it is hard at work on the process of memory consolidation. The study is reported in the April 22 On-line issue of Current Biology.

'What's got us really excited, is that after nearly 100 years of debate about the function of dreams, this study tells us that dreams are the brain's way of processing, integrating and really understanding new information,' explains senior author Robert Stickgold. 'Dreams are a clear indication that the sleeping brain is working on memories at multiple levels, including ways that will directly improve performance.'

The investigators had 99 subjects spend an hour training on a computer exercise in which they were asked to navigate through and learn the layout of a complex 3D maze. Participants were then assigned to either take a 90-minute nap or to engage in quiet activities but remain awake. Five hours after the initial exercise, the subjects were retested on the maze task.

The results were striking. The non-nappers showed no signs of improvement on the second test. Similarly, the subjects who napped, but who did not report experiencing any maze-related dreams or thoughts during their sleep period, showed little, if any, improvement. But, the nappers who described dreaming about the task showed dramatic improvement, 10 times more than that shown by those nappers who reported having no maze-related dreams.

'The subjects who dreamed about the maze had done relatively poorly during training,' explains first author Erin Wamsley. 'Our findings suggest that if something is difficult for you, it's more meaningful to you and the sleeping brain therefore focuses on that subject - it 'knows' you need to work on it to get better, and this seems to be where dreaming can be of most benefit.'

Click here for the full report.

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