You can learn to put names on faces while you sleep, studies show

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

“Our study showed that when memories are reactivated during sleep, memory skills can improve when you wake up,” said senior author Ken Paller, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University.

In fact, it was found that people remembered, on average, one and a half more names than they did before they slept. But, Paller added, it only worked when “sleep was not disturbed at the time of memory reactivation.”

If you wake up often due to sounds or sleep apnea or to use the bathroom, it interrupts your sleep cycle – and deprives the body of the restorative sleep it needs.

The body’s sleep cycle moves through four stages of sleep four to six times each night. In steps 1 and 2, the body begins to slow down its rhythms. Heartbeat and breathing slowly, body temperature drops and eye movements stop. It prepares you for the next stage – a deep, slow wave sleep, also known as delta sleep. During deep sleep, your body literally restores itself at the cellular level – repairing damage from the day’s wear and tear and consolidating memories for long-term storage.

Sleep with rapid eye movements, called REM, comes next. This is the stage where we dream. Studies have shown that lack of REM sleep can lead to memory loss and poor cognitive outcomes, as well as heart and other chronic diseases and an early death.

Since each sleep cycle is about 90 minutes long, most people need seven to eight hours of relatively uninterrupted sleep to achieve restorative sleep. A chronic lack of sleep affects your ability to pay attention, learn new things, be creative, solve problems and make decisions.

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Paller and his team asked a small group of 24 people to try to remember pictures of 80 faces and similar names: Half of the pictures were said to be students from a Latin American history class; the other half were described as students in a Japanese history class.

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

During their snooze, the researchers carefully monitored brain activity. When brain waves showed that the person was in slow-wave or deep sleep, some of the names they had studied were played quietly on a speaker.

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

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

People with longer periods of deep sleep, the study showed, had the best memory.

However, if the brain waves showed that the person’s sleep had been disturbed during their nap, there was no improved recall on the test. This is an important discovery, said lead author Nathan Whitmore, a doctoral candidate in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern, in a statement.

“It’s a new and exciting discovery about sleep because it tells us that the way information is reactivated during sleep to improve memory storage is associated with high-quality sleep,” Whitmore said.

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

“We are currently testing methods to implement these procedures in the home,” he told CNN. “However, there is not enough evidence to be sure how big a win is possible.”

Future studies should help discover “how these techniques can be used effectively,” he said. Meanwhile, the key to a good memory is to get a uninterrupted, high-quality sleep.

“Through high-quality sleep, our memories are more likely to be available when we need them, so we can use them to support decision-making, creativity, and problem-solving,” Paller said.


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