20 October 2021
Dream it, be it
Whoever said “If you snooze you lose” was completely wrong.
The myriad health benefits of sleep are obvious and well known. Apart from rejuvenating the body’s energy stores, a solid eight hour’s shut-eye has been shown to aid in the formation of memories and help solve complex problems.
And now a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that sleep can even help you learn new motor skills, with dream practice transferring into real life. Just like Neo, you too can become a martial arts master while napping in an armchair.
Well, not exactly.
For this study, the authors had participants play a computer game using a myoelectric computer interface, which enabled them to move a cursor by activating specific arm muscles. They also played the game blindfolded, using sound cues to direct the cursor’s movements. Which all sounds very cool and Matrix-y, but honestly not as fun as Mario Kart.
Once they were done gaming, the participants took a 90-minute nap, in a move that I call a “typical Saturday”. But unlike my “typical Saturday”, the researchers played half of the game’s sound cues to the sleeping participants, reactivating the motor memories associated with each cue.
After the nap, participants returned to gaming. This time, the researchers found that they performed the motions cued during sleep better than the uncued ones: it took participants less time to move the cursor, the cursor traveled a more direct route, and fewer superfluous muscles were activated.
According to the study’s authors, these results show we can improve the performance of new motor skills by reactivating memories during sleep, which could be a way to enhance rehabilitation for stroke or other neurological disorders.
Personally, these results have just made me rethink how I play video games.
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