The powerful way we learn from our dreams

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Your dreams may help you become more organized during waking hours, according to a new study. After analyzing over 100 dreams, an interesting encoding process became apparent. When an individual dreams about an object they are considerably more likely to remember the object when they wake up.

The  latest paper published in the journal Scientific Reports takes this hypothesis one step further.

Day residue

The authors write: “Only a few studies have experimentally addressed this issue and tested whether memory performance improved when participants reported learning-related dreams. As a whole, our findings suggest that the incorporation of an element of the task into dreams is associated with the reactivation during sleep of the encoding phase’s memory trace, yielding improved memory performance and, that during sleep in our study, the olfactory component of the memory trace was less reactivated than the visuospatial component.”

The researchers began sketching new ground by implementing seeds from old research. Over the course of three days, participants were introduced to a series of visually distinct landscapes, each with its own odor, perceivable with the press of a colored button (a yellow button would release the smell of lemons, for instance).

Every day the subjects spent seven minutes immersed in these vistas. Although the study pool was made aware that their memory was going to be tested in some capacity or another, they did not know how or in regards to what elements of the landscapes in particular.

This was done to animate Sigmund Freud’s ‘Theory of Dreams’. A postulation posited in 1900 that states when our guards are down, and we’re most relaxed, our mind uses the raw material from our conscious to establish a mutualistic relationship between waking life experiences and the hallucinatory images from our dreams. This has come to be known as day residue.

Every night the participants were fitted with sleep monitoring devices and a voice recorder so that they could recite everything they could remember from each dream.

The following mornings, experts administered a questionnaire designed to determine how closely each dream resembled the assortment of landscapes. Of the 32 subjects, 16 reported dreams that were undoubtedly energized by the initial experiments and an additional five reported dreams that were likely inspired by the very same to some degree.

The researchers were not able to determine why the olfactory elements of the landscapes didn’t make a bigger association impact compared to the visual elements.  “This would be coherent with the fact that olfaction and taste are typically the less-represented sensory modalities in dream reports,” the authors speculate.

Recently Ladders spoke to one of the curators behind the New Arcadia experiment that debuted at The University of Toronto. In it, Dr. Richard Sommers and his team invited academicians to speak to a collection of sleeping attendees. Miraculously, when quizzed the following day nearly half of the sample were able to recall elements of the lectures used in the study. Similar findings using language have been demonstrated as well. As we know there are different stages of sleep, some of which are clearly more conducive to retention than others.

A study published in the journal Current Biology toward the end of 2019 reviewed 41 native German-speaking individuals experiencing different stages of sleep. These participants were introduced to made-up words and their meanings while unconscious. Individuals who had the translation repeated during the “up” period of sleep spindles, were able to remember the associations fairly consistently. The study states, “if they were told that ‘guga’ means ‘elephant’ while sleeping, they were able to remember that ‘guga’ was related to something big when they were awake.”

Similarly, the respondents in the newest report were better able to recall elements from the vistas they explored when they were awake after they had dreamed about them.  Recording the following in the report:

  • “I was at the top of a cliff. It was really resembling the one I saw in the lab yesterday.”
  • “A yellow circle associated with the word lemon.”

The following association was slightly less obvious:

  • “I dreamt that I woke up to report my dream using the voice recorder just as in the experiment.”
  • “I was in the building for the study of dreams, downstairs in the cafeteria, and I was explaining to a rhinoceros that I was preparing my dreams as my hand-bags, with many objects which could be useful in case.”
  • “Some guys with white coats were doing experiments on us.”

Oneirology is a branch of science that is euphemistic by nature.  It seems extraordinarily difficult to recreate the same hazy results across massive studies but the new paper featured in the journal Scientific Reports certainly provides developments worthy of consideration.

“It would be worth testing in future studies whether NREM sleep learning-related dreams show more often a link with improved memory performance than REM sleep learning-related dreams and whether this possible effect is dependant on the task used,” the authors conclude.