A new study from researchers at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston suggest that dreaming is a necessary tool for improving memory function and learning new skills. Dreaming may be the body’s way of working on memory consolidation—a key part in both memory function and acquisition of skills. By dreaming, the brain can integrate our most recent experience into its folds to help solidify new information and experiences into hardwired skills.
To prove their hypothesis, researchers conducted a study. 99 subjects were asked to spend an hour training on a “virtual maze task”—a complex computer maze that they were asked to learn and navigate their way through. After the hour of training, half the subjects were asked to take a 90 minute nap while the other half were asked to engage in quiet activities but not fall asleep. After several hours, the subjects were then retested on the maze task.
The results were astonishing! The non-nappers showed no improvement on the task—even if they reported thinking about the maze for some period of time; the nappers who did not report thinking or dreaming about the maze showed no sign of improvement either. The nappers who reported dreaming about the task showed a 10 times improvement! These dreamers reported various dreams—from seeing people at checkpoints in the maze, being lost in a bat cave or even just hearing the background music from the computer.
Not only did dreaming help consolidate the information learned in the previous training section but the dreams were actually an outward reflection that the brain had been working on the task at hand. One very interesting piece of information garnered from the study was that the nappers who dreamt had actually been among the poorest performers on the task. The researchers note that “if something is difficult for you, it’s more meaningful to you and the sleeping brain therefore focuses on that subject – it ‘knows’ you need to work on it to get better, and this seems to be where dreaming can be of most benefit.” It may be because they had trouble with the task that they dreamt about it and ultimately became very good at it.