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Science Café: What Sleep Teaches Us

People spend a third of their life asleep, and psychologists like Ken Paller are pursuing answers to the cognitive mysteries of our nightly slumber.

Psychologist Ken Paller

Sleep consumes one-third of your life. You can’t avoid it, nor should you, says Northwestern’s Ken Paller (psychology). The director of the University’s Cognitive Neuroscience Program and affiliate of the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine says that sound slumber can make you feel wonderful, but there’s another vital aspect to it: Sleep is also essential for learning. Much of who you are — your memories and your habits — may depend on what your brain does while you sleep.

And what does it do?

The brain is far from idle when we close our eyes. Put a computer to sleep, and it simply stops and does nothing. Not our brains. Yet, we wake up knowing very little about what our brains have been doing. Leading theories propose that sleep presents an opportune time for important, new memories to become stabilized.

Now, research from Paller and his lab indicates that “a critical part of learning occurs during sleep” and that as recently formed memories “play back” at night our brain activity is important for reinforcing and storing these memories. Similar to an actor rehearsing lines for a performance, such reflection (even when it’s unconscious) seems part of the cognitive “consolidation process” that strengthens memory.

What’s more, recent work by Paller shows that these new memories can be strategically strengthened by sensory input while a person is asleep.

At the this month’s Science Café, Paller will present an invigorating, lay-friendly overview of his research on sleep. Join him January 22 at the Firehouse Grill in Evanston from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.