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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Got a Tough Task? Nap May Help

Task-Related Dreams During Naps May Make Difficult Projects Easier, Study Finds
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 22, 2010 -- Napping after working on a difficult task may make the job easier to do upon awakening, according to a new study.

The research, reported in the April 22 issue of Current Biology, offers evidence that napping might be a good strategy for studying.

Researchers asked 99 participants to sit in front of a computer screen and try to learn the layout of a three-dimensional maze so that they could find their way to a landmark, in this case, a tree, five hours later when placed at a random spot within the virtual space.

Study participants who were allowed to take a nap and also dreamed about the task showed more improvement in performance in a retest than those who did not nap or those who napped but did not report dreaming about the maze.

In some cases, people who dreamed simply remembered music associated with the computer maze.

One participant reported dreams of seeing people at various spots in the maze, even though the maze they saw before napping had no virtual people or checkpoints.

Another reported dreaming of negotiating bat caves, thinking the caves were like mazes.

Dreams Linked to Memory

“We think that the dreams are a marker that the brain is working on the same problem at many levels,” researcher Robert Stickgold, PhD, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School, says in a news release. “The dreams might reflect the brain’s attempt to find associations for the memories that could make them more useful in the future.”

He says that at first researchers “thought that dreaming must reflect the memory process that’s improving performance” but the content of reported dreams led to different conclusions.

Apparently, the researchers say, it’s not that the dreams led to better memory, but that dreaming may be a sign that other, unconscious parts of the brain are working hard to remember how to get through the maze during the dream state.

In essence, the dreams are a side effect of the memory process, the study authors write.

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