Michigan State University researchers have found evidence of an undefined form of sleep memory that may influence a person’s waking memory performance. Among individuals, differences in this underlying ability may distinguish those with high memory capacity. The study appears in the September 11, 2011, issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Decades of research have shown that the way a person processes information while awake contributes to individual differences in memory. And it is generally accepted that processes during sleep also influence memory performance. The Michigan researchers wanted to know if individuals’ different ways of processing while asleep had any connection with how they performed on memory tests while awake.
Kimberly Fenn, lead researcher on the project, said:
You and I could go to bed at the same time and get the same amount of sleep, but while your memory may increase substantially, there may be no change in mine.
We speculate that we may be investigating a separate form of memory, distinct from traditional memory systems. There is substantial evidence that during sleep, your brain is processing information without your awareness and this ability may contribute to memory in a waking state.
In the study of more than 250 people, Fenn and Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology, suggest that people derive vastly different effects from this “sleep memory” ability, with some memories improving dramatically and others not at all. This ability is a new, previously undefined form of memory.
She added that most people showed improvement.
Fenn said she believes this potential separate memory ability is not being captured by traditional intelligence tests and aptitude tests such as the SAT and ACT. She said:
This is the first step to investigate whether or not this potential new memory construct is related to outcomes such as classroom learning.
It also reinforces the need for a good night’s sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people are sleeping less every year, with 63 percent of Americans saying their sleep needs are not being met during the week. Fenn said:
Simply improving your sleep could potentially improve your performance in the classroom.
Bottom line: Kimberly Fenn and Zach Hambrick of Michigan State University discovered that a potentially different type of memory ability while asleep may influence a person’s waking memory performance. The results of their study appear in the September 11, 2011, issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.