Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Need to Learn Something Quickly? Try a Nap


Daytime naps are said to rejuvenate energy and lower stress. Now there is evidence that naps speed up consolidation of memories. Maria Korman and her group at the University of Haifa evaluated consolidation of a procedural memory task of learning to bring the thumb and finger together in a specific sequence. Half of the subjects were allowed to take an afternoon 90-min nap after training, while the other group stayed awake. The group that napped showed a distinct improvement in task performance when tested that evening. After a night's sleep, both groups showed the same improvement in acquired skill. So, it would appear that the nap just speeded up the consolidation process, rather than improving on the improvement that a regular night's sleep can produce.

The role of napping on interference effects was also tested. We know from numerous studies that consolidation of new learning is easily disrupted by distracting or other new learning experiences. In this experiment, another group of subjects learned a different thumb-to-finger movement sequence two hours after practicing the first task. Learning a second task right after the first was expected to interfere with learning of the first task. This proved to be the case; there was no improvement in performance of the first task either that evening or the next day after a normal night's sleep. However, based on the findings of the first experiment where a nap speeded up consolidation, the experimenters created yet another group of subjects that were allowed a 90-min nap between learning the first movement task and the second movement task. In this case, performance on the first task was improved when they were tested the next day after a normal night's sleep. Thus, the nap actually prevented the otherwise memory disrupting effect of a second learning task, presumably because the nap speeded up memory consolidation of the initial learning so that it was resistant to interference effects.

There are practical implications here, at least for procedural memories. This study indicates that if you need to learn a "how to" kind of task quickly, you should take a nap just afterward. One perhaps trivial illustration might be for football coaches who introduce some new training in the morning of a game to be played later that evening. After the morning workout, they should let the players take a nap that afternoon. Or for "two-a-days" workouts in the summer, maybe players need a nap between sessions, not just to rest but to consolidate the training.

Source: Korman, M. et al. 2007. Daytime sleep condenses the time course of motor memory consolidation. Nature Neuroscience. 10 (9): 1206-1213.