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article imageSleep aids learning and memory: new study

By Paul Wallis     Oct 23, 2007 in Health
Sleep is a brain organizer, according to new research. Lack of sleep is a stress which affects emotional responses and increases exposure to infections. Freud was the grandfather of the study of dreams, but now physiology is catching up.
One test by Harvard and McGill researchers showed an improvement in results after sleep. The broad theory is that the brain improves its access to memory during sleep.
As the New York Times explains:
Now, a small group of neuroscientists is arguing that at least one vital function of sleep is bound up with learning and memory. A cascade of new findings, in animals and humans, suggest that sleep plays a critical role in flagging and storing important memories, both intellectual and physical, and perhaps in seeing subtle connections that were invisible during waking — a new way to solve a math or Easter egg problem, even an unseen pattern causing stress in a marriage.
The theory is controversial, and some scientists insist that it’s still far from clear whether the sleeping brain can do anything with memories that the waking brain doesn’t also do, in moments of quiet contemplation
The NYT article includes a very interesting description of the history of the study of sleep. One of the striking things about that history is the concepts of sleep being used by the researchers. It was seen as either Freudian, or as “an annihilation of consciousness”.
That might seem strange to those who’ve grown up in a world where human behavior is under unrelenting, and some might say equally ignorant, observation by psychologists, behaviorists, and psychiatrists, working on a commercial and medical basis. It does show, however, the cultural differences which have evolved in the understanding of human consciousness in the last century or so.
The new findings are somewhat of a contrast:
Since then the study findings have come almost too fast to digest, and they suggest that the sleeping brain works on learned information the way a change sorter does on coins. It seems first to distill the day’s memories before separating them — vocabulary, historical facts and dimes here; cello scales, jump shots and quarters over there. It then bundles them into readable chunks, at different times of the night. In effect, the stages of sleep seem to be specialized to handle specific types of information, the studies suggest.
Even motor skills, and learning a guitar piece, are affected, during a specific stage of sleep. This is fascinating stuff, and should reassure the vast majority of people who think their heads are full of chaotic information that they’re not alone, and that the brain does have a way of dealing with info-tsunamis.
Also becoming apparent is that the brain uses a different kind of chemistry when asleep, and shuts down some interference which is active when awake. The brain chemistry is believed to actively assist long term memory, and even inspiration. The researchers say they’re seeing results literally overnight.
Meaning a whole new physiology and neurochemistry takes over when asleep, and it works quite differently, and apparently systematically.
This is the early breakthrough stage in this area of research, and a lot of it is totally new.
What occurred to me after reading this was that we might be better off letting the brain function according to its own system, and stop trying to inflict it with “methods” of thinking and learning that might conflict with it.
Some “consciousness control” methods, like meditation, are fairly close to sleep in various ways. Some forms of learning, however, are logic-structured, almost pedantically detailed, and compared to this, inefficient. The article points out that college students know that lack of sleep impairs judgment.
Maybe we should adjust the tune to fit the instrument.
More about Sleep physiology, Harvard, Consciousness