A new study, now published in the Journal of Sleep Research, examines the effects of short naps on the brain’s ability to process unconscious information.
Sleep is key in both memory formation and the consolidation of new information.
Cutting-edge technologies now allow scientists to see where in the brain learning takes place, and how sleep deprivation interferes with the brain’s neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to respond and adapt to the stimuli it receives from the environment.
What happens “under the hood” when we are asleep has also been the focus of numerous studies.
According to research that Medical News Today recently reported on, scientists were able to locate specific memories and strengthen them while the study participants were asleep using certain auditory cues.
Now, an intriguing new study focuses on the effect of daytime naps on the brain’s ability to process information that we are not consciously aware of.
Additionally, the study examined how daytime naps impact conscious behavior and choice reaction time — that is, the speed with which the brain processes new information.
Liz Coulthard, a consultant senior lecturer in dementia neurology at the University of Bristol Medical School in the United Kingdom, led the new research.
Coulthard and colleagues recruited 16 volunteers for the study and gave the study participants two tasks.
In the first, a “masked prime task,” the researchers presented information to the participants very briefly so that they didn’t have time to register the information consciously.
In the second (control) task, the participants responded when they were shown a red or blue square on a screen.
After performing the tasks, the study participants stayed awake or took a 90-minute nap. Then, all the volunteers did the tasks again.
The researchers measured the participants’ brain activity both before and after the nap using an electroencephalogram. They also tested the participants’ choice reaction time.
The study found that naps increased processing speed in the masked prime task, but not in the unmasked control task. This suggested to the researchers that naps specifically aid the processing of information that was acquired unconsciously.
Therefore, even a short period of sleep may help process information, improve our reaction times, and potentially influence our behavior when awake.
These findings strengthen the idea that the information we “perceive” unconsciously is processed during sleep, and that sleep may aid our decision-making when awake.
Coulthard comments on these results, saying, “The findings are remarkable in that they can occur in the absence of initial intentional, conscious awareness, by processing of implicitly presented cues beneath participants’ conscious awareness.”
However, the researchers plan to undertake more work in the future. “Further research in a larger sample size is needed,” she adds, “to compare if and how the findings differ between ages, and investigation of underlying neural mechanisms.”