60-Second Science

Some Skill Sleep Learning May Work

Hearing material while sleeping that you've already learned may improve sensorimotor skills related to the execution of the material. Christopher Intagliata reports

Remember those educational cassettes that you’d supposedly learn from overnight? Well, scientific evidence says they're bunk—unless you listen to them while you’re up during the night, that is.

But if you’re actually sleeping and you play something that you've already learned, like a piano melody you've been practicing, you may indeed master it more quickly. So says a study in the journal Nature Neuroscience. [James Antony et al, Cued memory reactivation during sleep influences skill learning]

Researchers asked volunteers—with and without musical experience—to learn a few random melodies on a computer keyboard.  Then the subjects took a 90-minute nap. When they slipped into slow wave sleep—a stage previously shown to be associated with memory processing—the researchers softly played back one of the two melodies.

After the subjects woke up, they were able to play both melodies more accurately—the helpful effects of a little shuteye, the researchers say. But the volunteers did even better on the ditty they'd heard while snoozing, suggesting sensorimotor skills can be fine-tuned by exposure during sleep.

The scientists stress that the procedure is no shortcut to becoming Scott Joplin—you still have to put in effort while awake. But a little sleep-time study may help you change your tune for the better.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.]


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