Science of…Daydreaming: Do Sweet Dreams Help Us Learn?
The midday naps children experience are never as pleasant as they sound, but the learn-by-doing time they provide in the morning will help their memory improve throughout the day, according to scientists who are devising ways to harness the power of daydreaming to help boost students’ performance.
“Our goal is to tell the brain that there is some other place to do the learning,” said study author Marcel Hug, a neuroscientist at the University of Exeter, U.K. “The brain does the learning itself in those important first moments, but then it can follow up with the question: ‘Why did I learn that?’”
The brain associates what we do with what we need, he added. And while before-school brain training programs can help children memorize words, this study focuses on making them believe that they have the power to create their own learning experience.
One surprise finding was that napping during the day can help the brain recover if a child’s schoolwork is kept to a strict schedule, according to the study, which was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
“It is no secret that the brain can only be sharp and alert in full attention, and a day of rapid transitions, transitions between working memory and low-level attention and between thinking and doing, can do serious harm to our productivity,” said study co-author Matteo Cappelluti, an author of both the Nature Neuroscience paper and a research scholar at Università degli Studi di Genova in Italy.
The study set out to unravel the neurochemical mechanisms of napping and find out if it has any effect on learning. The researchers tracked how attentive schoolchildren are when they think about the future and when they think about things that happened yesterday.
They tested 63 teenagers by giving them different types of pictures—some calm and others were tense—and asking them to draw pictures of a floating person. The researchers then asked each student to draw pictures as fast as possible of a floating person floating in a similar situation that day.
The researchers found that the participants’ ability to draw faster improved if they had an increased “future activation” score, which showed them how much they paid attention to what was going on in the present moment.
In an interview with New Scientist, the paper’s other lead author, James F. Asher, of Exeter University, said that learning how to control attention, following the watchful eye of the prefrontal cortex, is one of the most difficult challenges for learners.
“Some of the cognitive abilities needed to manage attention don’t get taught in the first few years of education,” he said. “Sometimes it’s really important to understand that you can’t leave your own mental space until it is given permission to go out of it.”
It is difficult to prove whether napping caused the improved attention or if students just learned better. The current study used student heads, so it cannot be ruled out that someone lying on their back while lying on their back might have a different “future activation” score.
But human beings are completely wired to think in the future. Scientists have found that we spend an average of 11 to 12 percent of our waking life in anticipation and preparation for the future, said Asher.
Daydreaming is also linked to learning, not just during the daytime but at any time. Students who were given an activity that triggered their thoughts of learning quickly scored better in a memory test than their peers who were not given this activity.
“Days can be very busy—a lot of things are on the go, sometimes there are many meetings to attend and documents to read,” F. Shyam Sundar, a professor of education and neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin, told New Scientist. “But at the same time, we often have memories of our most adventurous moments. There’s a time and a place for daydreaming, even on a busy day.”