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Psychologist pens cover story for Scientific American on sleep learning

Ken A. Paller, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University, has written the cover story in the November issue of Scientific American.  

In “Sleep Learning Gets Real,” Paller, whose recent research examines how memories are altered during sleep, writes about experimental techniques that demonstrate how to strengthen previously acquired memories during periods of sleep.

Scientific American cover

Paller and co-author Delphine Oudiette, a former Northwestern postdoc in psychology and now with the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM), write in the article: 

“Everyone knows we learn better when we are well rested. Most people, however, dismiss the notion of sleep learning out of hand. Yet a set of new neuroscientific findings complicates this picture by showing that a critical part of learning occurs during sleep: recently formed memories resurface during the night, and this playback can help reinforce them, allowing at least a few to be remembered for a lifetime.” 

The authors make the points that our brains remain highly active during sleep in ways that assist in storing memories; and that experimentally controlling the process of memory reactivation makes it possible to study how learning can improve because of nightly periods of downtime. They add that future programs for this new type of sleep learning, used in conjunction with learning while awake, might help in preserving memories, speeding acquisition of new knowledge, or even changing bad habits such as smoking.

“Looking still further ahead, scientists might also explore whether we can gain control over our dreams, which could lead to the prospect of nightmare therapies, sleep-based problem-solving and perhaps even recreational dream travel,” the authors conclude.

Read more in the full Scientific American article (subscription required).

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