Remembering Faces and Names Can be Improved While You Sleep

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Remembering Faces and Names Can be Improved While You Sleep

Jim Windell

             Some things I remember quite well. Such as major league baseball statistics and other basically irrelevant trivia. I’m also good at remembering the birth dates of family members and license plate numbers. What I’m not so good at is remembering the name of someone I just met. I would like to be better at that.

           Perhaps you too want to improve your memory for certain things. But, what’s they key to having a fantastic memory?

            You could try those medications that are touted during the commercials broadcast in the middle of your favorite TV shows. Certain medications and diet might help. However, researchers at Northwestern University think the key to a better memory may be close as your pillow.

            These researchers found that people’s name recall improved significantly when memories of newly learned face-name associations were reactivated while they were napping. What was the secret?

           The secret, they say, is uninterrupted deep sleep.

           A research team, led by senior author of a paper recently published in Science of Learning Ken Paller, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, studied 24 participants ages 18 to 31.  These subjects were asked to memorize the faces and names of 40 pupils from a hypothetical Latin American history class and another 40 from a Japanese history class. When each face was shown again, they were asked to produce the name that went with it. After the learning exercise, participants took a nap while the researchers carefully monitored brain activity using EEG measurements. When participants reached the N3 “deep sleep” state, some of the names were softly played on a speaker with music that was associated with one of the classes. When participants woke up, they were retested on recognizing the faces and recalling the name that went with each face.

            The researchers found that for study participants with EEG measures (a recording of electrical activity of the brain picked up by electrodes on the scalp) that indicated disrupted sleep, the memory reactivation didn’t help and may even have been detrimental. However, in those participants with uninterrupted sleep during the specific times of sound presentations, the reactivation led to a relative improvement averaging just over 1.5 more names recalled.

            Paller, along with Adrianna Bassard, Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Northwestern, and Nathan Whitmore, a Ph.D. candidate in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern, say the finding on the relationship between sleep disruption and memory accuracy is noteworthy for several reasons

           According to lead author Whitmore, “It’s a new and exciting finding about sleep, because it tells us that the way information is reactivated during sleep to improve memory storage is linked with high-quality sleep.”

           Whitmore went on to explain that they already knew that some sleep disorders like apnea can impair memory. “But,” he said, “our research suggests a potential explanation for this — frequent sleep interruptions at night might be degrading memory.”

           The research team is currently engaged in a follow-up study to reactivate memories and deliberately disrupt sleep in order to learn more about the relevant brain mechanisms. Paller says the new line of research will address other interesting questions – such as whether sleep disruption is always harmful or whether it could be used to weaken unwanted memories.

           No matter what they find in future research, Paller notes that “We are increasingly finding good reasons to value high-quality sleep.”

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Whitmore, N.W., Bassard, A.M. & Paller, K.A. (2022). Targeted memory reactivation of face-name learning depends on ample and undisturbed slow-wave sleep. npj Science of Learning 7 (1);


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