Saturday, March 26, 2011

Learning at Night: We Sleep, Our Brains Work

"Sleepwalkers Replay Day's Learning"
Brandon Keim, Wired Science (March 24, 2011)

"A video of what appears to be a sleeping woman doing a modified, slow-motion funky robot dance in bed may represent the most direct evidence yet that minds replay a day's learning during slumber.

"Much research supports this hypothesis, which in recent years has eroded the classical conviction that sleeping minds were, if not empty vessels, blank slates for undirected neurological activity. When tested on new facts, people remember them better after a good night's sleep than after a short break.

"Brain imaging shows similar patterns in their sleeping brains as when they are learning. But while compelling, such demonstrations are indirect.

"To avoid ambiguity, sleep researcher Delphine Oudiette of France's Université Pierre et Marie Curie-Paris and colleagues devised a cleverly straightforward test: They would teach a motor task to sleepwalkers and people with sleep behavior disorders, who typically move their bodies in tandem with dreams. If test subjects repeated the motions while sleeping, it would clearly demonstrate replay.

"Oudiette's team describes the experiment Mar. 21 in Public Library of Science ONE. Participants were trained to hit an array of color-coded buttons in response to computer prompts, then taped while asleep. Taken in aggregate, their sleeping movements tended to resemble those in the test. One woman in particular performed the test choreography with uncanny precision....

"...But be careful with those evening karate classes...."

There's something to the last line in that article. One night, the Lemming awoke - rather abruptly - because my wife had practiced a particular kick she'd been learning in Soo Bahk Do, a sort of Korean karate.

Then she woke up: probably a side-effect of the Lemming's yell. No harm done, but it was startling.

This research, besides shedding more light on what the brain does when we're asleep, has a practical application for students, in the Lemming's opinion. The traditional cram-all-night-for-finals ritual may be less effective than a brief review, followed by a good night's sleep.

So much for a hallowed academic tradition.

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