Trying to Learn a New Tune? Take a Nap to Speed Up the Process

By Chelsea Whyte on June 25, 2012 5:47 PM EDT

Amanda Shaw playing violin at Earth Fest, New Orleans, 2009
Trying to learn a tune? Take a nap with the music playing and your brain will keep learning while you snooze. (Photo: Creative Commons)

When you're trying to learn something new, there's no reason to lose sleep over it. In fact, new research from Northwestern University suggests that getting some shut eye may help people learn while they snooze.

In the study, participants learned how to play two musical tunes and then took a 90-minute nap, during which researchers  played one of the tunes that had been practices, but not the other. Using EEG methods to record the sleeping brain's activity, researchers made sure to present the musical cues while participants were in slow-wave sleep, a stage of sleep that's been previously linked with cementing memories.

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Even with that short exposure during sleep, participants made fewer errors when reproducing the melody that had been played while they slept, compared to the melody they didn't listen to as they dozed.

"Our results extend prior research by showing that external stimulation during sleep can influence a complex skills," said senior study author Ken A. Paller, professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

"We also found that electrophysiological signals during sleep correlated with the extent to which memory improved. These signals may thus be measuring the brain events that produce memory improvement during sleep," said lead author James Antony of the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern, according to Zee News.

Though it's a tantalizing thought, the research doesn't necessarily mean you can learn something in your sleep, though you might be able to improve on something you're learning during daylight hours.

"The critical difference is that our research shows that memory is strengthened for something you've already learned," said study co-author Paul J. Reber, according to UPI. "Rather than learning something new in your sleep, we're talking about enhancing an existing memory by re-activating information recently acquired."

The authors said the study opens the door for future studies of sleep-based memory processing for different types of motor skills, habits and behaviors. 

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