Now nap takers have a new excuse to snuggle under their covers. Researchers have recently found that plenty of napping is critical toward successful study habits.
Dr. Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School, along with fellow researchers, found that people who take naps and dream about tasks they have just learned perform them better compared to people who don’t sleep at all or who sleep but don’t have related dreams.
The subjects of the study were asked to sit in front of a computer screen to learn the layout of a 3-D maze that leads to a tree. After five hours, those who were allowed to take a nap and also remembered to dream about the task found the tree faster.
“We at first thought that dreaming must reflect the memory process that’s improving performance,” said Stickgold in a press release. “But when you look at the content of the dreams, it was hard to argue that.”
The researchers’ research paper was published in Current Biology.
Some of the dreamers said they remembered just the music from the computer maze. One subject dreamed of having people at particular checkpoints in the maze, although they weren’t there in the real maze.
Another subject recalled dreaming about going through bat caves and thought that the caves were like the mazes.
“We think that the dreams are a marker that the brain is working on the same problem at many levels,” Stickgold said. “The dreams might reflect the brain’s attempt to find associations for the memories that could make them more useful in the future.”
Although the dreams do not lead to better memory, they are signs that other unconscious parts of the brain are working hard to remember the way of getting through the virtual maze.
Stickgold said that we can probably take advantage of this phenomenon to improve learning and memory. For example, students can do more effective studying right before sleeping rather than in the afternoon, unless they take a nap in the afternoon.
“Some have viewed dreaming as entertainment, but this study suggests it is a by-product of memory processing,” said Stickgold.
The researchers hope to expand their study to manipulating the learning environment in ways that boost incorporation into dreams. They also plan to study the same phenomenon following a full night of sleep as opposed to a nap.