Sounds cue memories while you sleep

By TaylorGleason

Final exams have arrived, students are clamoring to end their semesters well, and this time of year they’ll try almost anything to get a good grade.

Among other college myths and rituals, which aim to produce good luck during tests and easy studying, is the old saw that a student can learn class material by recording facts or a language and listening to the recording as they sleep.

Ken Paller, an expert on the relationship of sleep and memory, said that tale is, unfortunately, not a proven method.

He does, however, offer new research which may give students more options for improving their memory of material learned while they were awake.

Paller, who teaches about the brain and cognition at Northwestern University, studied how sleep helps solidify memory. With one graduate student and two former graduate students, Paller conducted an experiment to see if certain sounds played during sleep aid in forming memories.

“A couple of different things got us interested in this study,” Paller said. “We were just interested in how memories work and in the consolidation of memories.”

People in the study were given images of random objects and were taught how to organize them while noises relating to each image played in the background.

For example, when correctly placing the image of a cat in its location, the sound of a cat’s meow would play.

Shortly after learning where each image went, the people went to sleep and at a random time as they slept the noise associated with each image would play once.

Paller’s study concluded that the noises helped the people remember how the images should be organized because the noise triggered the memory during sleep.

Although each sound was only played once, Paller said it might be possible for memories to strengthen even more if the noise was played more often.

“It’s like you are practicing in your sleep and the sound allowed people to practice remembering the locations of the pictures,” Paller said. He said just playing any noise would probably not help a person form memories; it would have to be noises that pertain to what was learned.

In addition, these results probably only apply to material that was learned while a person was awake, Paller said. He said that it’s probably not possible to learn anything simply by playing the information only during sleep.

Robert Vertes, a neuroscience professor at Florida Atlantic University, told the New York Times that Paller’s results are not significant because some study subjects who didn’t sleep showed similar responses to the noises as those who slept.

Sleep is often the first thing some students sacrifice in order to comeplete all of their end-of-semester work.

However, Lauren Hall, a psychology major at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., said she is passionate about getting enough sleep, no matter what.

“I can honestly say that in my four years of college, I have never once gotten less than seven hours of sleep,” Hall said.

Leeann Herrmann, a University of Michigan sophomore, echoed Hall’s sentiments.

“I do not sacrifice my sleep during exams, or for school for that matter,” Herrmann said. “No amount of coffee or NoDoz pills can keep me up if I haven’t had eight hours of good sleep the night before.”

Hall said she has learned to manage her time, and thanks to both hard work and good sleep, she has reaped the benefits of good grades.

According to Paller, Herrmann and Hall probably do perform better in school and remember what they’ve studied due to their dedication to sleep.

“Memories also process when we are awake, but we haven’t appreciated that sleep is another time that is also important,” Paller said.