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Can you learn while you sleep? from the Harvard Men's Health Watch

Getting enough restful sleep restores the mind and body, preparing both for the challenges that lie ahead. Without it, mood, concentration, and mental performance suffer. And according to research reported in the February 2012 Harvard Men’s Health Watch, sleep may actually improve cognitive function. These findings suggest that even a brief nap may help boost learning, memory, and creative problem solving.

Sleep is divided into two major phases, rapid-eye-movement (REM) and non–rapid-eye-movement (NREM). Sleep begins with the NREM state, which lasts about 60 to 90 minutes, before REM sleep kicks in. Dreaming is most common during REM sleep, but it may also occur during the early stages of NREM sleep.

A 2010 Harvard study found that dreaming may reactivate and reorganize recently learned material, improving memory and boosting performance. Ninety-nine healthy college students with normal sleep patterns were studied. Each agreed to avoid alcohol, caffeine, and drugs for at least 24 hours prior to the experiment.

Each of the subjects spent an hour learning how to navigate through a complex three-dimensional maze-like puzzle. After the training period, half of the students were allowed to nap for 90 minutes, while the others read or relaxed. Following a lunch break, all the volunteers tackled the virtual maze again.

The only students whose performance substantially improved were the few who dreamed about the maze during their naps. Although the dreams didn’t actually depict solutions to the puzzle, the researchers believe the results show that the dreaming brain can reorganize and consolidate memories, resulting in better performance on learned tasks. And these maze-related dreams occurred early in NREM sleep.

In addition to this Harvard study, the February issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch also presents three other studies which suggest that naps may boost intellectual performance, at least in the short term. The research shows that NREM sleep can improve memory and that REM sleep can enhance creative problem solving. It’s a two-step approach that can help keep minds sharper.

Read the full-length article: "Learning while you sleep: Dream or reality?"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch

  • The new PSA report: Understand the controversy
  • Learning while you sleep: Dream or reality?
  • Obesity in America: What's driving the epidemic?
  • On call: Exercising with respiratory infections
  • On call: Halitosis

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.