Sleep helps people learn complex tasks

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Ever feel mentally exhausted and absolutely befuddled after a day spent learning a new task or job? Sleep on it, say researchers at the University of Chicago. In a study published this week in the journal Learning and Memory, they have expanded on previous research to show sleep helps people learn and remember complicated tasks.

The researchers tested 200 college students, mostly women, who had little experience playing video games. The students were taught challenging video games that required them to learn maps of different environments. The students were given a pre-test to determine their initial performance level on the games, then were trained to play the games and tested on their performance. One group was trained in the morning and then tested 12 hours later after being awake for that time. A second group was trained in the morning and tested the next day, 24 hours after being trained. A third group was trained in the evening, then tested 12 hours after a night’s sleep, and a fourth groups was trained in the evening and tested 24 hours after training.

Those trained in the morning improved 8 percentage points immediately after training but after 12 waking hours lost half that improvement. The subjects tested the next morning, after 24 hours, had a 10% point improvement. The students who received evening training improved about 7 percentage points and improved to 10 percentage points the next morning and remained at that level throughout the day.

‘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,’ said Howard Nusbaum, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and one of the study’s authors. ‘These findings suggest that sleep has an important role in learning generalized skills and stabilizing and protecting memory.’


Nusbaum said the students probably tested more poorly in the afternoon because some of their waking experiences interfered after training. ‘Those distractions went away when they slept and the brain was able to do its work.’

Next question: When will college students learn that pulling an ‘all-nighter’ before a test may not be the best strategy?

-- Shari Roan