Catnaps, Dreams Can Accelerate Learning

It's no pipe dream: Getting more sleep and having more dreams could actually make you smarter.

April 28, 2010

Sweet dreams: Doing something in your dreams may help you do it in the real world.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Sleep during class and you'll wake up confused. But take a catnap afterward and you may just wake up smarter, suggests a new study published in the journal Current Biology. And if you dream about what you learned, all the better. "This study, in combination with others, shows pretty clearly that when you sleep after learning, you remember it better later on," explains lead study author Erin Wamsley, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School in Boston. "But also, it's not just sleep that's beneficial; possibly, dreaming is also associated with improved performance."


THE DETAILS: In the small study, researchers asked 99 participants to navigate a virtual maze on a computer screen. Half were then allowed to lie down and given a 90-minute opportunity to nap. The rest were asked to stay awake and continue to think about the maze. Those in the sleeping group, on average, slept for 45 minutes and performed better than the group that stayed awake when they were retested several hours later. However, the people who reported dreaming about the task while napping were six times more likely to outperform all others during the retesting. "When you sleep, processes happen in the brain that help memory, and that memory processing in the sleeping brain can be seen in the dream reports," says Wamsley.

This is one of the first studies looking at sleep, dreams, and spatial navigation performance in humans. This could come in handy when you are driving in a relatively new place and relying on landmarks and your sense of direction to find your way, Wamsley says.

WHAT IT MEANS: The benefits of sleep have been well researched. Early studies have looked at getting a full night's sleep and the positive impact it has on memory and all types of learning, but more recently the research has focused on shorter periods of time, including ultra-short naps. In 2008, a German-led study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that taking a brief nap—as short as six minutes—was just as effective, vis-à-vis memory and learning, as an hour-long nap. The idea is that the mere onset of sleep may activate the brain's learning processes, which could remain in effect even if you're woken up in a few minutes. "It's not the number of minutes that you're sleeping," explains Wamsley.

Her research also suggests that dreaming during short naps can further accelerate learning performance. "There's a misconception that we only dream in REM [rapid eye movement] sleep," she explains. The truth is, you may dream during that time, but it might be harder to remember it once you wake up.

Here's how to tap into the benefits of sleep—even if you don't have a lot of time.

• Sneak in a quick siesta. Dream or no dream, it seems to pay off to take even a short nap after you're bombarded with a lot of information because you'll better remember it later. Try our sleeping solutions, including eating a handful of relaxing, serotonin-boosting air-popped popcorn 30 minutes before you want to nap, to make the most of your nap.

• Try to (maybe) spark dreaming. There is some evidence that some people can induce dreaming—or even control dreams up to a certain extent—if they really focus on a specific task before they fall asleep. Some research also suggests that people experience lucid dreaming, that is, being able to tell yourself a dream is not real as it's happening, and sometimes even control some parts of the dream. "The strongest predictor of whether someone is a lucid dreamer is to really have an interest in dreams," says Wamsley. Personality may also play a role. Creative, introspective, emotional types who report many dreams and nightmares, and who are interested in their dreams, are more likely to report lucid dreaming, Wamsley says.

• Make sure you get enough sleep. Getting seven to eight hours a sleep is key, too, because sleep deprivation reduces our brain's ability to categorize, a skill needed to perform difficult tasks, and sometimes ones that mean life or death. Lack of sleep can also cause mental distress, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, anxiety, and other health problems.

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