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News You Can Snooze
March 21, 2011 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on News You Can Snooze

I admit that the last post put many of my readers to sleep. Which is both the point and the problem when offering advice to the awake on how to get some sleep. But the teaser in that previous post was that the bedtime story was actually related to language. So it’s time to stop counting sheep and get to the sleepy-time payoff.

Once upon a time, long before the end of the world, I was an exchange student at Kansai Gaidai University of Foreign Studies, planted in the rice paddies between Osaka and Kyoto. Back then, the exchange student population was a mixed bag, the very scrapings of American academia. And the most disreputable of us all was this guy, Doug, I believe his name was. His most notorious achievement was when he stole the chancellor’s shoes. A visiting academic from a sister school in the States had removed his fine black oxfords to enter one of the buildings, and Doug, who needed a pair of black shoes for an upcoming modeling assignment, lifted them, and managed to move them from shoe locker to shoe locker while the entire university staff conducted a building-by-building search. A real reprobate. There’s nothing quite as low as a shoe thief in Japan.

Anyway, one day, our Japanese instructor asked each of us how much time we spent on our studies, no doubt to shame the sluggards (by my estimate 75% of the class). Doug claimed 8 hours a day, since he listened to language tapes in his sleep. We scoffed, but I secretly wished it so. How great if the repetitious drudgery of language learning could be multi-tasked with a nap.

But it turns out Doug may have been onto something. Recently, Melinda Wenner reported on a study at Northwestern University that suggests that what we hear when sound asleep can strengthen memories of what we learn while awake.

“We were certainly surprised,” says co-author of the study, Ken Paller, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern. Paller and his team taught 12 subjects to associate 50 images with specific positions on a computer screen. When subjects saw each image (e.g. a cat), they heard a noise (e.g. meow). Then they took a nap. “While they were in slow-wave sleep (a deep-sleep phase marked by slow electrical oscillations in the brain), the re­searchers played the noises that matched 25 of the images they had been studying. On waking, the subjects were asked to perform the same image-matching task.” And surprise, noise cues administered during nap time made a big difference in their abilities. Study subjects were much better at correctly placing the images associated with the nap-time noise cues. Subjects claimed not to have heard the cues while asleep and were clueless when tested on which cues were played while asleep.

I wonder if anyone has done a study on stand-alone sleep-time learning. The downside of Paller’s discovery is that you’ve got to learn while awake, too, which means that if you want to learn while you sleep, you’ve got to cram for it during the day. Doug would not have approved.

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