100 Things You Should Know About People: #55 – During Sleep You Consolidate Learnings and Memories

Father and baby sleeping

You Sleep To Learn And Remember

Why do people sleep? — Well, not just people, but all kinds of animals sleep. When you think about it, it’s actually quite a strange idea that for 1/4 to 1/3 of each day we go unconscious and are oblivious to the world around us. Scientists for years have wondered and studied what goes on when we sleep and why we do it.

Some of the best research happens through serendipity — Matthew Wilson was studying brain activity in rats as they run mazes. One day he accidently left the rats hooked up to the equipment he used to record their brain activity. The rats eventually fell asleep, and to Wilson’s surprise, he found that the brain activity while they were asleep was almost the same as the brain activity when the rats were running the maze.

Learning and consolidating – Wilson started a series of experiments to study this more. And through his experiments he has come up with a theory, not just about rats, but about people too: When you sleep and when you dream you are reworking, or consolidating, your experiences from the day. Specifically you are consolidating new memories and making new associations from the information you processed during the day. Your brain is deciding what to remember and what to let go of, or forget.

Sleep don’t cram – Of course we’ve always heard the advice to “get a good night’s sleep” before a big event, or exam. It turns out that that advice was solid. If you want to remember what you have learned the best thing to do is to go to sleep after you learn and before you need to remember it.

And if you like to read research:

Ji D, Wilson MA (2007). “Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep.” Nature Neuroscience 10: 100-7.

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Posted in brain, memory, psychology, research
3 comments on “100 Things You Should Know About People: #55 – During Sleep You Consolidate Learnings and Memories
  1. Régis Kuckaertz says:

    Wow, this is quite staggering. So our brains really never rest?

    Mmh, it might explain why great ideas always come under the shower :-)

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Great article–I figured this out firsthand last year.

    When I was in my intro to programming class, I procrastinated on a project and ended up rushing to finish it. The day before it was due, there was one major bug preventing the program from working. I searched for hours, pouring over every line of code, but couldn’t find it.

    I got up the next morning and sat down at my computer, changed two or three lines of code, and the program worked perfectly.

    Ever since then, I’ve made it a point to walk away from complex problems when I’ve run into a wall and sleep or do something relaxing to let my mind process it. More often than not, when I come back the solution is obvious, even though I haven’t consciously thought about it.

  3. Christina says:

    This is great info! I love the story about the accidental findings by the researchers. There is also a NOVA video about this and they must have similar sources as you since they share similar conclusions if you want to check it out: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/sleep.html . I teach 7th grade science and show this to my kids and then talk about sleeping before tests and quizzes. It is really interesting! Both my kids and I love this…and now I have more of the story to tell! Thanks for sharing this!!

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I'm a Ph.D. psychologist and I write and videoblog about how to apply psychology and brain science research to understand how people think, work, and behave. For more information about me and about the Weinschenk Institute, check out the the Team W website.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.
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