How Naps and Rewards Boost Learning
I remember in kindergarten we’d bring sleeping mats school.
During a designated time of day we’d take out our mats, turn the lights off, and there would be complete silence in the room.
Did any of you have a similar routine?
I’m not even sure if they do nap time in classrooms anymore. Rather, the trend seems to be increasing study time any way possible.
Believe it or not, the schools that have nap time may be on to something. Whether the realize it or not. Even adults can benefit from the practice.
With a little twist, of course.
A Rewarding Boost
Scientists have known that sleeping helps consolidate memories. It also helps in retrieving memories more easily the next day. In general, sleep is really helpful in learning.
Even naps after learning have been found to help memory consolidation.
Now researchers from the University of Geneva have discovered a new wrinkle that might give learning an extra boost.
Adding rewards to learning seems to signal to the brain that it’s more important to keep that information in memory.
Kinga Igloi, a researcher from the study, comments:
“Rewards may act as a kind of tag, sealing information in the brain during learning.”
When the brain tries to consolidate memory, it gives special attention to the memories with rewards attached to them. Kinga elaborates on this:
“During sleep, that information is favorably consolidated over information associated with a low reward and is transferred to areas of the brain associated with long-term memory.”
The study included 31 healthy volunteers. They were split into two groups. A sleep group and a “wake” group.
The scientists also had to make sure that participants in the study were equally sensitive to rewards. If a few people were highly motivated by reward incentives, it could potentially skew results.
Participants were made to memorize pairs of pictures. They were shown 8 series of photos. However, they were told that 4 pairs would earn a higher reward if they could remember them.
The two groups were given 90 minutes before they were tested. One group took a nap while the other group simply took a break.
When tested, both groups performed better on the pictures that were considered high reward. The group with the best overall performance, however, went to the participants who took the nap.
Researchers were also curious about the long term effects. So they surprised the participants 3 months later with another quiz.
Not only did the sleeping group perform better for the highly rewarded pairs, but they also found that participants had more confidence in their answers.
The details of the study have been published in the journal eLife.
Inside the Brain
Brain scan were also done during throughout the experiment. During memorization researchers saw increased brain activity – called slow spindles – in the hippocampus. An area critical for forming memories.
Even 3 months later, the researchers could see increased brain activity between regions related to memory consolidation and reward.
Kinga summed up the research by saying:
“We already knew that sleep helps strengthens memories, but we now also know that it helps us select and retain those that have a rewarding value.”
So next time you need a study break, taking a quick nap should be at the top of your list. And if you can find a way to make the information more rewarding all the better. Because naps and rewards boost learning more than just simply napping.