+ Sleep Helps You Learn Complicated Sensorimotor Tasks

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Researchers at the University of Chicago observed that sleep helps the mind learn complicated tasks and helps people recover learning they otherwise thought they had forgotten over the course of a day.

Researchers used a test that involved learning to play video games.  Results showed for the first time that people who had “forgotten” how to perform a complex task 12 hours after training — found those abilities were restored after a good night’s sleep. 

Howard Nussbaum, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a researcher in this study, says, “Sleep consolidated learning by restoring what was lost over the course of a day following training, and by protecting what was learned against subsequent loss.  These findings suggest that sleep has an important role in learning generalized skills, stabilizing and protecting memory.”

The results show that this consolidation may help in learning language processes such as reading and writing, as well as eye-hand skills such as tennis, he feels.

The team reported their findings in a paper, “Consolidation of Sensorimotor Learning During Sleep” in the current issue of Learning and Memory.

The student subjects learned video games containing a rich, multisensory virtual environment in which players must use both hands to deal with continually changing visual and auditory signals.  The researchers used first-person shooter games in which the goal is to kill and avoid being killed.

One group was trained in the morning and then tested 12 hours later after being awake the entire time.  A second group was trained in the evening, and then tested the next day, 24 hours after being trained.  Another group was trained in the evening and tested 12 hours later after a night’s sleep; a fourth group was trained in the evening and tested 24 hours after training. 

When subjects were trained in the morning, they showed an 8 percentage point improvement in accuracy immediately after training.  However, after 12 waking hours following training, subjects lost half of that improvement when tested in the evening.

When subjects were tested the next morning 24 hours after training, they showed a 10 percent point improvement over their pre-test performance.

Says Nussbaum, “The students probably tested more poorly in the afternoon because following training, some of their waking experiences interfered with training.  Those distractions went away when they slept and the brain was able to do its work.”

Among students who received evening training, scores improved by about 7 percentage points, and went to 10 percentage points the next morning and remained at that level throughout the day.

This study follows Fenn, Nussbaum and Margoliash’s earlier work, published in Nature, which showed for the first time that sleep consolidates perceptual learning of synthetic speech.

“In that study, we showed that if after learning by the end of the day people ‘forgot’ some of what was learned, a night’s sleep restored this memory loss,” says Nussbaum.  “Furthermore, a night’s sleep protected memory against loss over the course of the next day.”  

The latest study expanded that work to show that sleep benefits people learning complicated tasks as well.

source: www.sciencedaily.com on 11/19/08, which was “adapted from materials provided by University of Chicago.” 

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