Dreams That Make You Smarter

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It’s late in the evening: time to close the book and turn off the computer. You’re done for the day. What you may not realize, however, is that the learning process actually continues—in your dreams.

It might sound like science fiction, but researchers are increasingly focusing on the relationship between the knowledge and skills our brains absorb during the day and the fragmented, often bizarre imaginings they generate at night. Scientists have found that dreaming about a task we’ve learned is associated with improved performance in that activity (suggesting that there’s some truth to the popular notion that we’re “getting” a foreign language once we begin dreaming in it). What’s more, researchers are coming to recognize that dreaming is an essential part of understanding, organizing and retaining what we learn—and that dreams may even hold out the possibility of directing our learning as we doze.

While we sleep, research indicates, the brain replays the patterns of activity it experienced during waking hours, allowing us to enter what one psychologist calls a “neural virtual reality.” A vivid example of such reenactment can be seen in this video, made as part of a 2011 study by researchers in the Sleep Disorders Unit at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. They taught a series of dance moves to a group of patients with conditions like sleepwalking, in which the sleeper engages in the kind of physical movement that is normally inhibited during slumber. They then videotaped the subjects as they slept. Lying in bed, eyes closed, the woman on the tape does a faithful rendition of the dance moves she learned earlier—“the first direct and unambiguous demonstration of overt behavioral replay of a recently learned skill during human sleep,” writes lead author Delphine Oudiette.

Of course, most of us are not quite so energetic during sleep—but our brains are busy nonetheless. While our bodies are at rest, scientists theorize, our brains are extracting what’s important from the information and events we’ve recently encountered, then integrating that data into the vast store of what we already know—perhaps explaining why dreams are such an odd mixture of fresh experiences and old memories. A dream about something we’ve just learned seems to be a sign that the new knowledge has been processed effectively. In a 2010 study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers at Harvard Medical School reported that college students who dreamed about a computer maze task they had learned showed a 10-fold improvement in their ability to navigate the maze compared to participants who did not dream about the task.

Robert Stickgold, one of the Harvard researchers, suggests that studying right before bedtime or taking a nap following a study session in the afternoon might increase the odds of dreaming about the material. But some scientists are pushing the notion of enhancing learning through dreaming even further, asking sleepers to mentally practice skills while they slumber. In a pilot study published in The Sport Psychologist journal in 2010, University of Bern psychologist Daniel Erlacher instructed participants to dream about tossing coins into a cup. Those who successfully dreamed about the task showed significant improvement in their real-life coin-tossing abilities. Experiments like Erlacher’s raise the possibility that we could train ourselves to cultivate skills while we slumber. Think about that as your head hits the pillow tonight.

Brilliant readers, do you ever have dreams about what you were studying or working on while you you were awake? Did you feel that you mastered this dreamed-about material more fully? Please share your thoughts below.

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10 Responses to “Dreams That Make You Smarter”

  1. David Wees says:

    I think this may be related to this research, but there may be many other possible explanations as well.

    I spent a 10 year hiatus from ice skating, except that I skated frequently in my dreams (at least 1 time every few months) during the 10 years because I had a recurring dream that I was a star in the NHL. At the end of the 10 years, I went skating with a friend of mine, and I was significantly better at skating than I had been before, even though I had no real practice. My hypothesis at the time was that my dreams of skating improved my performance. Is this possible?

  2. John Bennett says:

    As always, you’ve found another fascinating topic for this week’s blog!!! The item of great interest in the blog for me at least is the fact that through dreams, the brain connects newly learned with previously learned – what I’ve been calling CONSIDERING when done consciously when awake. Great that the brain seems to extend those efforts while we sleep!

    AND it raises the possibility maybe for another brain activity I’ve thought also happens. As an educator, I suggest students read the who exam prior to beginning any one problem and that, when subsequently dealing with a troublesome question, they seek to identify the current stumbling block rather than trying to answer the question. In both cases, it seems anecdotally for me at least that good outcomes happen more frequently when I do them – as if the brain is considering the assignment “in the background” while addressing other questions. To me at least, the research you cite might support such thinking???

  3. Hmmm. more than once I’ve dreamt I was writing referrals.

  4. Concha says:

    When I was a graduate student in mathematics, I kept a notebook next to my bed because very frequently I would wake up in the middle of the night with the breakthrough step in a proof that I had spent the day struggling with. I knew that if I worked obsessively on something during the day and then went to bed still thinking about it, there was a very good chance that I would have a solution by morning.

  5. I love the notion of dream-time being useful!

    However, while I am getting quite skilled at staying calm when I discover I’ve shown up for a party without wearing clothes, and I’v developed an impressive ability to levitate and grow weird projections out of my forearms, these skills don’t seem to come up a lot in daily life.

    Fascinating research though!

  6. Yes, this fits right in with my learning theory that average stress is made up of layers of mental work, including things such as homework. Your article was a big step in helping persons understand how our average stress is at work both sleeping and awake.
    Isaac Asimov: I believe he was not just a science fiction writer; he was also a professor. He wrote about the time he was learning how to use a word processor for the first time. Word processors were not as friendly to the person as they are today. He said he would work on all the instructions trying to understand it and would go to bed still not grasping the information. He said the next morning, the information seemed to fall in to place more easily. He postulated the idea that while he was asleep, his mind was still busy working on the material he had struggled with the night before. I loved seeing this, for it added more credential to my learning theory and the use of average stress as layers of mental work our minds are dealing. This is the “very important part”, all of us are acclimated to different amounts or layers of mental work that take up real mental energy, not just homework. This shows how our individual environments along with the weights and values we use in our life, creates very different amounts of layers of average stress causing some students to have to work two or three times as hard to receive the same mental reward. This then provides all of us with a wonderful variable/tool to begin approaching our individual environments more delicately to begin understanding, resolving, and making subtle to substantial changes in some faulty values in order to not just permanently remove a needless mental friction but also prevent future like mental frictions.
    By showing students how their individual environments greatly affect their ability to think, learn, long-term motivation to learn, and grow mentally and emotionally, students will have much more respect and esteem for themselves and for others. By providing students with tools to approach their lives more delicately and differently to continually change and improve their lives, students will then have a continuous hope of developing in time, many if not all of the qualities they admire in others over time. Students will then have a continuous hope of changing and becoming newer and better persons with each passing day. This will reduce much hopelessness, many harmful escapes and other problems created by the terrible teachings of fixed intelligences in school such as dropouts, drug/alcohol abuse, catharsis of violence, and suicide. This will also help remove the horrible teaching of genetics in ability that is creating many harmful escapes and deaths each year. This will open up a whole new way of approaching learning by providing students with tools to improve their own lives. Theory has many applications.

  7. I have been learning calculus and programming recently. When I am working on it particularly intensely, I will dream that I am trying to solve the calculus or programming problem. The dreams will sometimes be very detailed, and I often feel refreshed and ready to retackle the problem in the morning.

  8. Karen Robinson says:

    Many years ago, I was working for an engineering company as a CAD operator (I drew what the engineers designed). We had a large project, the expansion of a sewage treatment plant, which was expected to take about a year to finish. A couple of months into the work, the client called – could we finish it in six months instead? They offered quite a large bonus if we could, and the company management agreed to try.

    This put the project staff in a difficult position: we had about nine months worth of work left to do and only four months in which to do it, or else we would be the ones blamed for losing the bonus. We pulled in as many new people as we could, but unfortunately for me, there were no other CAD operators available who could work full-time on the project.

    First, I panicked. :) Then I started working as many hours as I could, trying to keep up with the engineers, but I fell further and further behind.

    I’d have undoubtedly missed the new deadline by months, except that I started dreaming about the project. I’d go to bed at night, and while I slept, I’d “draw” the next day’s work. All the thought-labor involved in producing the drawings – planning what had to be done next, working out the appropriate order in which to do it, keeping track of what information I still needed and from whom I expected to get it, deciding how to lay out the drawings and which details should go on which sheet – all of that, I did in my dreams.

    The rate of my workflow from that point on was amazing. Actually drawing the structures is the easy part; that’s just executing commands. The organization and preparation of the work requires far more mental labor and is much more time-consuming than most people realize, and all of that, I was doing in my sleep. In the office, all I had to do was draw.

    It took three and a half months to finish the drawings. It should have taken nine. That’s the power of dreaming. :)

  9. Minu says:

    This article applies to me, at least recently since I started dreaming about a book. At least a handful of times, my dreams guided me, giving me clarity about the next step that I needed to place, the next chapter that I needed to write. And as it has happened, these revealing dreams have helped me a lot during stressful times while working on the first draft. To talk about dreams helping us get better understanding and insight, yes, in my case, it has been happening as well. When I approach a particular work with intensity and passion, it so happens that my mind has a way of helping out the person.

  10. Viverjita says:

    I could connect sooo much with your article!! It explained a few things for which I thought there never was a reason. Being a student, the activity which I engage myself in just before sleep is studying or learning something. Because of a childhood habit inculcated by my mother, I end my study session with a quick mental recap of what I had done through the day. I don’t like to brag on this, but I’ve always been a good academic performer and a brilliant student. Now I can attribute to it to “smart learning”, but I hardly remember having dreams centered around it.There are a few “visions in my head” that I do remember, which exemplify your explanations in the article. This incident happened over 4 years ago, when I was trying to learn and remember equations of chemical reactions in organic chemistry. After many days of efforts, I finally managed to get an outline of the whole thing – a clear enough outline to make a detailed mind map. I was drawing the map on a big sheet of paper since thay evening, and was almost nearing completion around the time I usually go for bed. I stretched the time a little longer so that I could finish the map, but after sometime, I could feel my eyes shutting, and so I put everything aside, without making the final links and I immediately hit the sack, and sleep followed suite. I do remember the “vision” (couldn’t really call that a dream) – chemical symbols and formulae, with all sorts of arrows, which were pointing some things to the other – I felt it too be too “nerdy” and this was the first time I had seen such a thing. My sleep was of average duration, and I woke up remembering vivid images of the vision. Later that day, I was studying organic chemistry again pulling out my incomplete mind map from the previous night and that was when I realized that those “weird arrows” I saw where actually those which related one part of the map to another, and though I had not drawn it earlier, I could clearly remember the linkages know and draw it with ease. I was awed by the human brain’s capabilities! After this “awe”some experience, I did get many more similar visions but they were of smaller magnitude, and I am very sure it helps in my learning process, along with the many other things that happen in my head which I’m not aware of.

    Please write more articles about the immense capabilities of the brain, and spread the awareness.

    Cheers! :) I love your work

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