Sleep helps the brain consolidate what we’ve learned, but scientists have struggled to determine what goes on in the brain to make that happen for different kinds of learned tasks.
You take your piano lesson, you go to sleep and when you wake up your fingers are better able to play that beautiful sequence of notes. How does sleep make that difference? A new study helps to explain what happens in your brain during those fateful, restful hours when motor learning takes hold.
“The mechanisms of memory consolidations regarding motor memory learning were still uncertain until now,” said Masako Tamaki, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University and lead author of the study that appears in the Journal of Neuroscience. “We were trying to figure out which part of the brain is doing what during sleep, independent of what goes on during wakefulness. We were trying to figure out the specific role of sleep.”
In part because it employed three different kinds of brain scans, the research is the first to precisely quantify changes among certain brainwaves and the exact location of that changed brain activity in subjects as they slept after learning a sequential finger-tapping task. The task was a sequence of key punches that is cognitively akin to typing or playing the piano.
Scientists have shown that sleep improves many kinds of learning, including the kind of sequential finger-tapping motor tasks addressed in the study, but they haven’t been sure about why or how. It’s an intensive activity for the brain to consolidate learning and so the brain may benefit from sleep perhaps because more energy is available or because distractions and new inputs are fewer, said study corresponding author Yuka Sasaki, a research associate professor in Brown’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic & Psychological Sciences.
“Sleep is not just a waste of time,” Sasaki said.