You can learn to put names to faces while you sleep, study finds

One day, you may have a tool to quickly learn and remember names and faces, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal NPJ: Science of Learning. Northwestern University researchers found that playing a recording of people’s names during the deepest sleep of the night boosted people’s memory and improved their ability to remember names and faces the next morning.

“Our study showed that waking memories can be improved by reactivating memories while sleeping,” said senior author Ken Paller, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University.

In fact, it has been found that people remember an average of one and a half more names than they did before bed. But, Paller added, it only worked if “sleep was not disturbed at the time the memory was reactivated”.

If you frequently wake up or use the bathroom to noise or sleep apnea, you are interrupting your sleep cycle – and robbing the body of the restful sleep it needs.

The body’s sleep cycle moves through four phases of sleep four to six times a night. In stages 1 and 2, the body begins to decrease its rhythms. Heartbeat and breathing slow down, body temperature drops, and eye movements stop. This prepares you for the next phase – a deep, slow sleep, also known as delta sleep. During deep sleep, your body literally regenerates at the cellular level – repairing damage from the wear and tear of the day and solidifying memories in long-term memories.

Next is rapid eye movement sleep, called REM. This is the phase in which we dream. Studies have shown that lack of REM sleep can lead to memory deficits and poor cognitive outcomes, as well as cardiac and other chronic diseases and early death.
Because each sleep cycle is roughly 90 minutes long, it takes most people seven to eight hours of relatively uninterrupted sleep to achieve a good night’s sleep. Chronic lack of sleep affects your ability to pay attention, learn new things, be creative, solve problems, and make decisions.

A wired nap

Paller and his team asked a small group of 24 people to memorize pictures of 80 faces and corresponding names: half of the pictures are said to have been students in a Latin American history class; the other half has been described as taking a Japanese history class.

Each person was then wired up to an EEG machine, which records electrical activity in the brain, and is allowed to take a nap during the day.

During their nap, the researchers carefully monitored brain activity. When brain waves indicated that the person was in a slow or deep sleep, some of the names they had studied were played softly over a loudspeaker.

Music associated with either Japanese or Latin culture was also played to help with the association. Music has been shown to stimulate the hippocampus, the part of your brain associated with storing long-term memory.

“When our participants woke up, they were relatively better at recognizing people’s faces and remembering their names – compared to remembering faces and names that weren’t reactivated in their sleep,” said Paller.

The study found that people with longer periods of deep sleep had the best memories.

However, if the brain waves showed that the person’s sleep was disrupted during their nap, there was no improved memory of the test. That’s an important finding, lead author Nathan Whitmore, a graduate student in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern, said in a statement.

“It’s a new and exciting finding about sleep because it tells us that the way information is reactivated during sleep to improve memory retention is linked to quality sleep,” said Whitmore.

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Exciting enough to use at home? Not quite yet, said Paller.

“We are currently testing methods of implementing these procedures at home,” he told CNN. “However, there isn’t enough evidence to be confident about how much profit is possible.”

Future studies should help figure out “how these techniques could be used effectively,” he said. In the meantime, the key to good memory is quality, uninterrupted sleep.

“Quality sleep makes our memories more available when we need them, so we can use them for decision making, creativity, and problem solving,” said Paller.

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