Sounds, Scents & Sleep: A Memory Boost?

December 1, 2009 at 1:49 pm Leave a comment

image Remember all of those  old “Learn while you sleep!” programs, the ones that promised to fill your  college-age mind with information via a instructional cassette tapes  tucked under your pillow?  Yeah, they didn’t work for me either. But according to some recent studies, there may actually be some effective ways to boost your memory and recall while asleep… and yes, one of them uses recorded sounds!

Here’s the deal.

The researchers took a smallish group of people, and had them learn the correct locations for  50 different images on a computer screen by moving them into place.  Each image was also associated with a sound, like a bark for a dog, or the sound of waves for the ocean.

Then, the group took a nap.

While they slept, they listened to white noise… along the sounds associated with 25 of the images. On awakening, the participants were unable to identify which sounds had been played; in fact, they were seemingly unaware that they’d been played at all.

But when asked to place the  images in the locations they’d learned before their nap, the participants did significantly better with the pictures whose sounds had been played for them while they slept.   If the sound of the waves was played for them, they were more likely to remember where the photo of the ocean went.   If the barking *wasn’t* played, they were less likely to place it correctly.

A previous study was done using scents, instead of sounds, and with a similar outcome.

Why might this work?

The brain stores and accesses memories through a complex net of neural connections.  The more parts of the brain are involved in a particular memory, the stronger it tends to be.   By combining visual and auditory information with the physical task of moving the images, the participants in the study were creating a pretty complex and stable network for each memory.

imageAnd each time that network is activated, the entire memory becomes stronger.  So by playing the sound in the participants sleep, the researchers seem to have been triggering that memory circuit,  strengthening it.

The same thing would likely happen with scent; by connecting the learned task with a particular smell, it creates a more complex neural memory pattern, which is then activated and strengthened by exposure to the scent a second time.

How could this be helpful?

Well, it’s still pretty early to say for sure,;  the studies are too preliminary to start creating new learning/memory programs based on them.  But they do support some of the existing theories of memory formation and recall, and suggest some passive ways that learning and memory might be enhanced.

And though most of the speculation seems focused on helping students learn new material,  similar techniques might be developed for people with cognitive problems like Alzheimer’s.  Imagine using sound, scent and sleep to help dementia patients adjust to a new environment, remember a phone number, or recall the names and faces of loved ones just a little bit longer.

Like so much of the neuroscience work being done, there are just so many possibilities!

Entry filed under: memory, Sleep. Tags: , , , , .

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About This Blog


A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
  • Cognitive Training
  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • A Sense of Purpose & Connection
Authored by Tori Deaux
Sponsored by Dakim Brain Fitness

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