Thomas McKim Plastic Surgeon
St. Lukes Medical Center

The Sleep-Memory Connection

Learning while snoozing? New studies say yes

As though you needed another reason to catch some ZZZ's; still, according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, you may be learning while you snooze, thanks to an unconscious form of memory. Researchers at Michigan State University asked study participants to learn the association between 40 pairs of words (i.e., forest and timber), then split them in two groups and tested them on their ability to recall the second item in each pair after hearing the first. The participants that were trained in the evening and were tested after a regular sleep phase were able to remember more items than the group that was trained in the morning and tested in the evening.

Researchers conclude that the participants with a stronger working memory capacity—those who were better able to store and retain information in the moment—showed a larger benefit from sleep. And because working memory is related to both short-term memory ability and retrieval of long-term memory, “offline” processing during sleep may improve long-term storage, says the study’s lead author, Kimberly Fenn, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Michigan State.

“If that’s the case, we believe that better understanding of sleep-dependent memory may improve our ability to predict things like academic success,” Fenn says.

While more research is needed to better understand the connection between sleep and memory, one thing’s certain: It never hurts to get some ZZZ’s. People who consistently don’t get enough sleep are at a disadvantage because they have less time for offline processing, and they run the risk of acquiring information in a partially sleep-deprived state, says Fenn.

“Thus, they essentially have two strikes against them,” she says.

Having trouble getting to sleep? Try a breathing technique called the 4-7-8 exercise. With your tongue resting on the roof of your mouth, just behind the upper teeth, exhale completely. Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four counts. Hold your breath for seven counts. Then, exhale while mentally counting to eight. Repeat the cycle three more times.

Article Reviewed: June 22, 2012
Copyright © 2015 Healthy Magazine

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