When faced with an important decision in life, they say it’s better to sleep on it — and now, we have the science to back that up. Researchers at the University of Bristol found that a short period of sleep helps people process unconscious information acquired earlier during the rest of the day.
We sleep for about a third of our lives, but even though much research has been dedicated to unraveling the biological effects of slumber, there are still many things about this basic process we don’t understand. So far, we know that sleep is important for acquiring knowledge, consolidating memory, creative problem solving, and replenishing stamina. And at least one thing’s for sure — forgoing sleep is really bad for our health.
In a new study, British researchers wanted to understand how naping might affect reaction time and behavior. For this purpose, they recruited 16 healthy participants who were asked to performed two kinds of tasks. One was a masked prime task where the participants were exposed to hidden information which flashed on a screen very briefly (it was masked). Although the information was hidden, it was processed subliminally. For the second task, the participants simply responded when they saw a red or blue square on a digital screen.
After they performed their tasks, the participants either stayed awake or slept for 90 minutes before doing the tasks again.
Both before and after their naps, an EEG measured the electrical activity produced in the brain of the volunteers.
The analysis of the electrical activity found that napping improved processing speed in the masked prime task, but not in the control task. This suggests that sleep improves the processing of information acquired subconsciously, optimizing goal-orientated behavior.
“The findings are remarkable in that they can occur in the absence of initial intentional, conscious awareness, by processing of implicitly presented cues beneath participants’ conscious awareness,” said Dr. Liz Coulthard, Consultant Senior Lecturer in Dementia Neurology at the University of Bristol Medical School.
While the study only featured a small sample size, researchers say the results are encouraging — and they want to carry out a broader study on more participants.
“Further research in a larger sample size is needed to compare if and how the findings differ between ages, and investigation of underlying neural mechanisms,” Coulthard concluded.
The findings appeared in the Journal of Sleep Research.