If you have trouble remembering names, you know how awkward it can be when interacting with someone whose name has completely slipped your mind. Overloaded as we are with constant information, your brain may not be able to retain that information; but unlike other smaller pieces of information, forgetting someone’s name is one of the worst social faux pas!
According to a new study from Northwestern University, you can save yourself the embarrassment (or the appearance of just not caring) with a simple method involving sleep learning. Sleep learning has been used to listen to large volumes of information, such as books, study guides, or even foreign languages.
Young adult participants from 18-31 years old were asked to remember the names and faces of eighty students they hadn’t met before. Following the study of each face and name, the participants took a nap while a portion of the students’ names played in a music track—but only once they reached a specific part of deep sleep known as N3. All participants were asked to recall the names when shown pictures of the faces after waking.
For the participants who got to deep sleep and the audio track was played, they could recall about 1.5 more names than those who didn’t hear the audio track. Researchers found that they key to it was having the audio sleep learning occur at that specific state of deep sleep. If the participants didn’t reach that state of deep sleep, their sleep was considered disrupted.
Based on the EEG activity of their brains when sleeping, trying to engage the brain in auditory sleep learning during disrupted sleep wasn’t helpful at all! During the deep sleep, the brain waves are producing slow waves. We know from previous studies that disrupted sleep, or sleep that doesn’t reach that slow-wave state, can actually impair memories. In fact, memory formation is so dependent on sleep that people who have sleep apnea may have impaired memory because their sleep is broken up frequently.
Researchers are excited to see if it’s possible to use this knowledge in reverse: to see if it’s possible for memories that are unwanted to be manipulated during recall in lighter states of sleep. Will it soon be able to help you get rid of memories you would rather not keep? Only time will tell; but for now, putting your mind to the test for auditory sleep learning isn’t a guarantee—unless you reach that deep sleep state first.
Nathan W. Whitmore, et al. Targeted memory reactivation of face-name learning depends on ample and undisturbed slow-wave sleep. npj Science of Learning, 2022; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41539-021-00119-2