More Sleep-as-Learning Research

28 10 2007

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.

. . .Dr. Carlyle Smith of Trent University in Canada has found a strong association between the amount of Stage 2 sleep a person gets and the improvement in learning motor tasks. Mastering a guitar, a hockey stick or a keyboard are all motor tasks.

. . . “The implication of this is that if you are preparing for a performance, a music recital, say, or skating performance, it’s better to stay up late than get up really early,” he said in an interview. “These coaches that have athletes or other performers up at 5 o’clock in the morning, I think that’s just crazy.”

I planned my high school schedule around taking the required PE first period, here in Florida. Being less than alert or slipping on the wet grass seemed preferable to dehydration, sunburn, vomiting, passing out, or heat stroke. I don’t think our physical mastery of sports skills (or general health) was being much enhanced, no matter what time of day we endured PE.

It is likely during REM, some scientists argue, that the brain proceeds to mix, match and juggle the memory traces it has preserved, looking for hidden connections that help make sense of the world. Life experience is cut up and reordered, sifted and shuffled again. This process could account for the cockeyed, disjointed scenes that occur during dreams: the kaleidoscope of distilled experience is being turned.