Why give your brain the night off? You can force your mind into practicing new skills while you sleep, finds new research from Northwestern University.
Researchers asked 16 people to learn how to play two different melodies using a specially designed computer program, Guitar Hero. In the middle of the experiment, all the participants took a 90-minute nap. As they slept, the sneaky researchers played one of the two melodies on low volume.
What happened post-nap? Though none of the participants could recall hearing music while they slept, they showed three times more improvement performing the tune played during their naptime compared to the other melody, according to the study.
Even when you’re asleep, your brain’s hearing pathways don’t shut down, says study author Ken Paller, Ph.D., a cognition professor at Northwestern. Those pathways allow sound information to “make contact” with your memories, stimulating and reinforcing the same patterns of neuron activity that occurred while you were learning, he explains. It’s complicated stuff, but Paller says sound cues help strengthen your memories of learning a skill while you sleep.
So far, the research has worked only on skill learning, which Paller describes as activities that are acquired gradually—think playing an instrument, speaking a new language, or becoming a master chef.
Want to try it at home? Put on music while you’re practicing your new skill. The tunes should be different than what you normally jam to, otherwise your brain won’t associate the music with your new activity, Paller says. Play back the music at a low volume while you sleep or nap, and you should experience some benefit, thought it’s too early to say exactly how much, Paller says