Robert Stickgold and Jeffrey M. Ellenbogen in Scientific American Mind
In 2007 one of us (Ellenbogen) showed that the brain learns while we are asleep. The study used a transitive inference task; for example, if Bill is older than Carol and Carol is older than Pierre, the laws of transitivity make it clear that Bill is older than Pierre. Making this inference requires stitching those two fragments of information together. People and animals tend to make these transitive inferences without much conscious thought, and the ability to do so serves as an enormously helpful cognitive skill: we discover new information (Bill is older than Pierre) without ever learning it directly.
The inference seems obvious in Bill and Pierre’s case, but in the experiment, we used abstract colored shapes that have no intuitive relation to one another, making the task more challenging. We taught people so-called premise pairs—they learned to choose, for example, the orange oval over the turquoise one, turquoise over green, green over paisley, and so on. The premise pairs imply a hierarchy—if orange is a better choice than turquoise and turquoise is preferred to green, then orange should win over green. But when we tested the subjects on these novel pairings 20 minutes after they learned the premise pairs, they had not yet discovered these hidden relations. They chose green just as often as they chose orange, performing no better than chance.
When we tested subjects 12 hours later on the same day, however, they made the correct choice 70 percent of the time. Simply allowing time to pass enabled the brain to calculate and learn these transitive inferences. And people who slept during the 12 hours performed significantly better, linking the most distant pairs (such as orange versus paisley) with 90 percent accuracy. So it seems the brain needs time after we learn information to process it, connecting the dots, so to speak—and sleep provides the maximum benefit.
Via Arts & Letters Daily.