Imagine how would it feel like to have complete control over your memories. How would you like to study for an exam with full confidence in your ability to remember everything?
Even better, how will your life change if you could replace traumatic memories, or effortlessly stop bad habits like smoking?
While this may sound like science fiction, recent studies reveal how intervening with the learning process that takes place in our brain during sleep may enhance memory and affect behavior.
The Inner Workings Of The Brain In a Nutshell
The field of Neuroscience (i.e., brain research) has made significant progress in understanding the learning mechanism that goes on inside our brain while we sleep.
During sleep, the brain goes through several cycles. It is during the Slow-Wave Cycle scientists believe that the brain processes the information it had stored during the day. The area in the brain called Hippocampus saves what it recognizes as valuable and filters out the irrelevant stuff from the long-term memory. This process is called Memory Consolidation. With each new information or skill you acquire, new neural pathways are formed in your brain, and existing pathways are reinforced. Knowledge and skill which is not practiced or revisited are simply not reinforced during this process, and their neuropathways slowly get weakened and faded away. Now that we covered the fancy terminology, here is the kicker…
Scientists Found a Way to “Hack” The Memory Formation Process In the Brain
Recent studies suggest that deliberate intervention during slow-wave sleep cycle may have a positive effect on our memory. Here’s a fun video by Greg Gage with DIY Neuroscience following a study by Ken Paller of Northwestern University on the subject.
Here Is Where It Gets Even Better
The experiment above showed a significant change in the form of memory which is referred to as “Declarative Memory.” This is a fancy term for our explicit memory, all the facts and events we can consciously recall (or “declare”), just like the flash memory cards. Now scientists have managed to take this form of brain hacking one step further and see if this kind of intervention can affect our implicit memory. This is our unconscious memory, also known as “Procedural Memory.” The procedural memory contains our understanding of how to do things, particularly the use of objects or movements of the body, such as tying a shoelace, brushing our teeth or playing the guitar. In his talk at the DLD conference, Dr. Moran Cerf gave a few interesting insights on where research is going today, and how interfering with memory consolidation during sleep can have an impact on unconscious memories and behaviors. For example, one study showed how the brain could be trained to stop smoking during sleep. The subjects, longtime smokers, were called to the lab and got their sleep monitored. During their slow-wave sleep cycle, scientists sprayed the smell of nicotine into their nose, and right after that, the smell of rotten eggs, ugh!
What they found after a few consecutive times (surprise surprise) is that the subjects had subconsciously learned that smoking is bad, and they didn’t feel like smoking anymore. It’s the classic Pavlovian conditioning, only this time it was completely unconscious.
So What Can We Learn From All This
The practical implications of these new studies are yet to be discovered. However, these studies shed light on another facet of our learning processes that are taking place inside our brain. I believe that we are not far from seeing solutions like apps and programs that promise some form of accelerated learning based on these “brain hacks”. I have recently started using an app on my smartphone that monitors my sleep cycles using the built-in microphone, which wakes me up just when I’m closest to my waking state. If our smartphones can already identify which sleep cycle we are in, it won’t take much to apply these principles in existing learning apps and tap into our sleep to enhance our memory.
I have always found it fascinating how science and technology enable us as human beings to hack our inner workings and enhance our cognitive and physical abilities. It’s impossible to predict our capabilities in the next fifty or hundred years, but the one thing we can be sure of is the accelerated evolution path in which we are on today and is getting us closer to becoming super-humans.