Why Napping Is Good for Memory

New research shows that sleeping may preserve memories and help with learning and performance.

By: Melissa Romero

Next time your boss yells at you for falling asleep at your desk, tell him or her you’re just learning on the job.

Sound risky? Maybe so, but there’s evidence to back it up. Researchers out of Northwestern University found that participants in a study were able to remember how to perform a designated task after 90 minutes of sleep.

In the study, participants first learned how to play two musical pieces by using a program similar to that of the video game Guitar Hero. Afterward, they took a 90-minute nap. During the nap, they listened to just one of the tunes during a period called “slow-wave sleep,” which has been previously linked to making memories.

Once awake, the participants had to play both musical pieces again. Researchers found that the participants made fewer mistakes when performing the song they had listened to while sleeping than the other.

“Our research shows that memory is strengthened for something you’ve already learned,” study co-author Paul. J. Reber said in a statement. “Rather than learning something new in your sleep, we’re talking about enhancing an existing memory by reactivating information recently acquired.”

The researchers said their findings may be applied to other areas, not just music. If one is trying to learn a different language, for example, reactivating those memories during sleep might enhance learning.

It’s not the first time napping has been touted for its memory benefits. A previous study out of Harvard Medical School found that participants who took a nap after learning declarative memory tasks performed better on the same tasks post-nap, compared with the subjects who did not sleep.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.