Study: Hu­mans can learn while sleep­ing lightly

New Straits Times - - World -

PARIS: Sci­en­tists fas­ci­nated by the idea that hu­mans might be able to learn while asleep — a new lan­guage, say, or a piece of mu­sic — have long been com­ing up with clash­ing ex­per­i­men­tal re­sults.

On Tues­day, a team said it had fi­nally un­rav­elled why. The hu­man brain can learn only in cer­tain phases of shut-eye.

Par­tic­i­pants in a study were able to mem­o­rise sound pat­terns played to them dur­ing two phases of sleep called Rapid Eye Move­ment (REM) and N2, re­searchers wrote in the journal Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

REM is the phase of un­con­scious­ness dur­ing which we typ­i­cally dream, and is char­ac­terised, as its name sug­gests, by the eyes flit­ting about rest­lessly. N2 is a phase of lighter, non-REM sleep.

A third phase of deep non-REM sleep called N3, said the re­searchers, was pos­i­tively bad for mem­ory for­ma­tion, how­ever.

“Sounds pre­vi­ously learned dur­ing N2 sleep are for­got­ten or un­learned, as if erased from mem­ory,” the French team said.

They had wired 23 vol­un­teers up to EEG brain mon­i­tors, and played them record­ings of sound pat­terns while they slept.

When they awoke, the trial par­tic­i­pants were tested on how well they could re­mem­ber the sim­ple com­po­si­tions.

The team “ob­served a sharp dis­tinc­tion be­tween light NREM sleep, dur­ing which learn­ing was pos­si­ble, and deep NREM sleep, dur­ing which learn­ing was sup­pressed,” said a press sum­mary by the journal.

In fact, upon wak­ing, the par­tic­i­pants who un­learnt the sounds dur­ing N3 sleep found the same pat­terns even harder to re­learn than to pick up com­pletely new ones.

This sup­ported the­o­ries that N3 sleep serves to un­clut­ter the mem­ory, said the re­searchers.

Fur­ther re­search must be done to de­ter­mine how the find­ings may find prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion as a learn­ing aid. AFP

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