Thursday, May 6, 2010

Learning While You Dream

This article from the New York Times focuses on a recent study published in Current Biology. the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center recently conducted a study focusing on the role of sleep and dreams on learning and problem solving.

The study focuses on 99 volunteers who trained for an hour on a three-dimensional virtual maze. At the end of the hour, half of the participants were kept awake for 90 minutes but allowed to read or relax. The other half were allowed to sleep for 90 minutes but were awakened periodically and asked to describe their thoughts or dreams. After the 90 minutes were up, all participants were asked to tackle the puzzle again.

For participants who did not sleep, their second try at the puzzle yielded the same or worse results than the first hour. For participants allowed to sleep, the study registered marginal improvement, though not statistically significant results. However, the 4 participants who reported dreaming about the maze cut their completion time in half, and their final scores were ten times better than those who had slept and not dreamed. All 4 participants who dreamed were recorded as struggling with the maze during the first hour.

Researchers included several reasons they speculated that those who dreamed improved their scores.
  • When topics grip people at an emotional level, the brain is forced to continue the process even when the person is asleep.
  • The brain is tuned to find associations you don't notice when awake.
Researchers also made recommendations based on their study.
  • If a person wants to improve the likelihood they will dream about a topic, the best way is to become emotionally invested in it.
  • Researchers also recommend future studies on ways to format information that will increase the ability to induce dreams.


  1. Sleep generally takes 90-110 minutes to go through all 5 stages (REM or dream stage is the fifth). Considering the volunteers were woken up periodically in a 90 minute period, odds are they weren't really dreaming about the maze, rather, they were thinking about the maze. I agree that emotional involvement can help problem-solving (and hinder in some situations); however, I would attribute the improvement in maze times to thinking about the problem, not dreaming about it.

  2. I agree that emotional investment in helpful in problem-solving, however the article details peoples' experience, and they clearly seem to be dreams. I think it is possible that this is why only 4 people reported dreaming about the problem.

  3. was there any mention in the article of the brain and how it is active while sleeping? or how sleep improves memory?

  4. That wasn't the purpose of the study, but they did encourage more investigation in that area. I would definitely take a couple minutes to check the article out if you are interested it's really only 1-2 pages long.

  5. I agree with Julie above.

    Most studies relating to sleep have to do with getting into those stages where the brain organizes and consolidates the day's memories.

    I think it actually takes about 90 minutes to complete a full process. if the participants aren't allowed to finish that process, how are we to know if it really worked?

    It would be like studying how your computer performs when the disk is fully defragged, but not letting the defragging process to finish before you "check" it.