What happens when we go to sleep and begin to dream? Why do some people sleepwalk? Where are they really? Why do we need to sleep at all? These are some of the fascinating questions scientists are starting to answer through sleep research. Their discoveries are changing the way we view the simple act of sleeping.
French and Swiss researchers caught on tape what other studies have deduced through brain recordings and memory tasks: as we sleep, our brains seem to replay what we learned during the day. They recruited 19 sleepwalkers and 20 people with sleep behavior disorder, who physically act out their dreams, plus 18 people without any sleep disorders.
All the subjects learned a physical skill: hitting particular buttons arrayed around them in response to different prompts from a computer. The researchers then videotaped each person as they slept. One of the sleepwalkers lifted her arms during REM sleep and started moving her hands in a familiar pattern: an “obvious and accurate re-enactment of a short fragment of the recently learned sequence of movements,” the researchers wrote.
A good night’s sleep can improve memory not just for physical tasks like this one, but for words, facts, pictures, and spatial information. Most of these studies have compared how sleep-deprived and well-rested people performed on memory tests, or looked at how closely brain activity during sleep resembled brain activity as people learned something new. Watching people who act out their thoughts as they sleep provides a more direct view of what the brain’s up to.
And what is the brain up to while we’re asleep? Can we use “wasted” sleep hours to learn, train new skills and grow intellectually? It appears that we can:
In the final analysis, there is still much we don’t know about sleep. But scientists are beginning to glimpse a vast potential for human evolution, by learning to tap into and utilize sleep and dreaming for health benefits as well as to improve intelligence.
Further exploration of these virtual worlds of imagination in lucid dreams states, offers an exciting and limitless frontier for research into heretofore untapped resources of our minds.
Parts of this article were excerpted from a blog entitled: Study Finds Sleepwalkers Learn as They Go Through the Motions, by Valerie Ross.