If you have been following the Brainscape Academy, I’m sure it has become clear that we love to talk about sleep! So, it's no surprise we turn this topic: dreaming and memory.
In the past, we've expressed why sleep is so important to learning. We learned that sleeping allows our brains to remember what’s important, and that it prepares our minds for future learning. We've even provided tips on how to get a better night’s sleep and cure your insomnia.
The reason we're so interested in sleep is because research has made it abundantly clear that sleep is essential for optimizing your brain health and for cognitive performance. Without it, we simply don't perform well. And since our whole goal at Brainscape is to use what we know from cognitive science to make learning as efficient as possible, we know sleep is key.
But what about dreaming: have you ever wondered what dreaming has to do with all of this? Does dreaming play a role in our learning too?
It turns out that there's some research that suggests dreaming, separate from just sleeping, plays a role in preparing our brains for learning. It appears to have a major influence on learning and memory consolidation.
Study finds that sleep and dreaming help consolidate memory
It turns out that dreaming plays an important part in putting your memories together and helping them become permanent.
According to a study at Harvard Medical School, dreaming allows the brain to make connections between new information and past experiences, helping us to better remember what we have just learned.
In the study, 99 participants were trained to navigate a virtual maze for 45 minutes. At that time, half of the group was allowed to nap for 2 hours, while the other half remained awake, rehearsing and studying the maze in their minds. Later the same day, the participants were tested on the maze once again.
We thought this was a no-brainer: of course, the group that was able to remain awake and study would perform better the second time around. Right?
In reality, the study found that those people that remained awake, rehearsing the task in their minds, did not perform as well as those who were allowed a quiet place to sleep. Even more astounding is that those people that recalled dreaming about the task improved the most. On average, they performed nearly 6 times better than the waking group!
Instead of simply rehashing the maze again and again in their minds like those that stayed awake, the group that dreamed about the task simply made connections between the maze and other aspects of their lives in their dreams. For instance, some participants recalled a tour through a bat cave, or associated the maze with music they heard in the past. These seemingly random associations helped to cement the shape of the maze into their memory.
What it means
In other words, during dreaming, our brains determine which learned information is important and what should be remembered for the long term. Sleeping enables us to consolidate memories that wouldn't be connected otherwise, and that helps us remember them.
This isn't the only study, either. Several other studies have similarly found evidence that dreaming carries an important role in memory consolidation. Clearly, dreaming is exceptionally important if we want to better remember what we are studying for a test.
How can you take advantage of the link between dream and memory
Now you’re probably wondering how you can increase our dreaming. Can we even control what we dream about?
Unfortunately, the authors of this study admit that dreams are notoriously hard to control. Still, it does suggest that thinking about what you hope to dream about before going to sleep significantly increases the likelihood that your dream will correlate with the desired topic.
Probably the best take-away of the article is this: you should get enough sleep. You're not going to dream at all if you're not sleeping. And sleep, by itself, has been shown to have a ton of benefits for learning.
Remember to learn effectively, too
The other way to remember what you learn better? Use methods that are actually effective for learning. Brainscape was designed using what we know from cognitive science to optimize learning using spaced repetition. If you concentrate on using effective tools for learning, you'll remember more regardless of how much you dream.
We will begin trying harder to dream, and you should too, because if all goes as planned, our learning and memory will dramatically increase (especially if you’re using Brainscape to maximize your learning outcomes :). But remember: you can’t dream unless you sleep. Add dreaming to your list of reasons why sleep is so important!
Fosse, M. J., Fosse, R., Hobson, J. A., & Stickgold, R. J. (2003). Dreaming and episodic memory: A functional dissociation? Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15(1), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1162/089892903321107774
Gildner, T. E., Liebert, M. A., Kowal, P., Chatterji, S., & Snodgrass, J. J. (2014). Associations between sleep duration, sleep quality, and cognitive test performance among older adults from six middle income countries: Results from the Study on Global Ageing and Adult Health (SAGE). Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 10(6), 613-621. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.3782
Stickgold, R. (2005). Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature, 437(7063), 1272-1278. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04286
Wamsley, E. J. & Stickgold, R. (2010). Dreaming and offline memory processing. Current Biology, 20(23), R1010-R1013. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2010.10.045