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"Sleep Study" -- The Discovery Files

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Want to nail that tune that you've practiced and practiced? Maybe take a nap with the same melody playing during your sleep, provocative Northwestern University research suggests.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

To sleep--perchance to learn

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

A Northwestern University study has participants sleeping during class. (Sound effect: snore) Specifically, testing the effects of brain stimulation during sleep on skill enhancement. Participants were given two simple random melodies to learn to play on a key press. After working on the task, they were allowed a 90-minute nap. As subjects entered the stage of sleep associated with cementing memories the "slow wave" stage, researchers played one of the tunes in their ears, but not the other. Could these external cues enhance learning? The researchers say, 'yes' noting that afterward, when asked to recall the tunes, participants made fewer errors in the sequence that was presented during sleep.

Does this mean you could, say, learn a new language while you sleep? Not really. The findings show you must study and learn the language first. But stimulation during sleep does seem to provide enhanced memory of a skill you have already recently learned. So you may be able to reinforce those language skills.

The team is thinking about ways their findings could apply to other types of learning as well, such as different types of motor skills, habits and behaviors.

Seems like the only skill I've improved on while sleeping is sleeping itself.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's national science foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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