Scientists used to think that the human brain went into a hibernation-like state during sleep. It was thought that when our bodies rested, our minds went off duty and became inactive. Exciting research into brain function, particularly revolutionary neuromagnetic imaging, has shown that our brains are as active when we sleep as they are when we’re awake and on the go.
Sleep researchers have suspected for some time that the brain replays the day’s experiences during sleep, reinforcing learning. Brain imaging has shown that the same areas of the brain are active during both learning and sleep; however, without a direct physical demonstration, until now, proof of the link had remained a theory. A new study of sleepwalkers conducted by sleep researchers at France’s Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris is the first tangible proof that a direct link does, in fact, exist between learning and sleep.
In a ground-breaking study, sleepwalkers were taught simple motor tasks, such as a dance step, before sleeping. During sleep, video cameras showed study participants repeating the learned motions while they slept. Sleepwalkers were chosen as test subjects because their somnambulant actions are known to be driven by their dreams.
This new study emphasizes the importance of sleep in the learning process. Children who receive adequate sleep are known to learn tasks more quickly and perform better at school, in large part, it now appears, because the school day never ends for the brain.