Can dreams be a study tool?

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© Jamie Grill/Tetra Images/Corbis

Dreaming about tomorrow’s big presentation, or how you’ll tackle certain questions on an exam later this week may seem like a sign that your anxiety over the pending challenge has seeped its way into your subconscious—yet, according to new research published in the journal Cell Biology dreaming about something you’ve learned may actually be an indicator that your memory is working overtime to retain that information. Doctors (and moms) have long emphasized the importance of a good night’s rest—for everything from improving performance to overall physical well being. Yet this latest inquiry, conducted by psychiatrists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School suggests that while sleep is beneficial, dreams may actually signal whether our memories continue to work through challenges. In this latest research, they found that, after initially performing a task, study participants who took a nap and dreamt about that task outperformed both those who hadn’t slept, and those who’d had a dreamless sleep or whose dreams didn’t touch on the task.

As part of the research, subjects were asked to study a three dimensional computer maze so that later, when they were virtually placed somewhere in the middle of that maze, they’d be able to find their way out. Between the initial viewing of the maze, and the later task, some participants were allowed to nap. Among those who rested, several had dreams that incorporated the maze—some saying that their dreams featured the music that had been playing while they studied the maze earlier, while others imagined the maze as a series of caves that they’d had to wander through. Later, when participants were plopped back in the maze, those who’d dreamt about it—even in seemingly ancillary ways—had greater success finding their way around than those who hadn’t dreamt about the task, or who hadn’t slept at all.

The study authors say the findings indicate that dreams may be a byproduct of memory processing, and working over a problem in your sleep is a sign that your brain is actively trying to retain that information. The next step in the research, they say, is to examine how dreams during a full night’s sleep relate to memory process.

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