Monday, February 22, 2010

Sleep learning in babies

Okay, this is weird. Some researchers played phrases in an artificial language (such as "pel-wadim-jic") over and over to babies, using attention span to tell when they had learned the phrase. The learning sessions were scheduled at times such that some of the kids napped afterward and others did not. Then they tested them again.
The infants who did not sleep after the sessions still recognized the phrases they had learned earlier. But those babies who had slept in between sessions were able to generalize their knowledge of sentence structure to draw predictive relationships to the new phrases. This suggests that napping supports abstract learning - that is, the ability to detect a general pattern contained in new information.
In follow-up work, the UA researchers have shown that infants must have their naps within four hours of listening to the artificial language in order for them to demonstrate this beneficial abstraction effect. Those who failed to nap within that time, but slept normally that evening, failed to show the abstraction effect the next day.
So sleeping enhances the ability of babies to draw a linguistic abstraction out of the mass of aural data they are immersed in.

Lots of thoughts come to mind.
  • Yes, that's how language is learned. They're doing the same thing all the time with English that they did with the artificial language.
  • Providers and parents should schedule language activities within a few hours of nap time. That would include reading before bedtime. Aha! Maybe that's why kids who are read to before bedtime are better at language.
  • Is it also true of old people? Should I do my serious mental activity just before bed rather than just after getting up, as I do now. Or maybe it means I should take a nap after doing anything mentally strenuous. I'll take that answer, thank you.
After I wrote that, I found this, which says yes, a midday nap makes adults learn new stuff better after a nap. Naps seem to consolidate memories, draw inferences from them, and clear RAM for a new task. Cool.

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