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.