We know that we remember more 12 hours after learning if we have slept during that 12 hours rather than been awake throughout, but is this because sleep is actively helping us remember, or because being awake makes it harder to remember (because of interference and over-writing from other experiences). A new study aimed to disentangle these effects.
In the study, 207 students were randomly assigned to study 40 related or unrelated word pairs at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m., returning for testing either 30 minutes, 12 hours or 24 hours later.
As expected, at the 12-hour retest, those who had had a night’s sleep (Evening group) remembered more than those who had spent the 12 hours awake (Morning group). But this result was because memory for unrelated word pairs had deteriorated badly during 12 hours of wakefulness; performance on the related pairs was the same for the two groups. Performance on the related and unrelated pairs was the same for those who slept.
For those tested at 24 hours (participants from both groups having received both a full night of sleep and a full day of wakefulness), those in the Evening group (who had slept before experiencing a full day’s wakefulness) remembered significantly more than the Morning group. Specifically, the Evening group showed a very slight improvement over training, while the Morning group showed a pronounced deterioration.
This time, both groups showed a difference for related versus unrelated pairs: the Evening group showed some deterioration for unrelated pairs and a slightly larger improvement for related pairs; the Morning group showed a very small deterioration for related pairs and a much greater one for unrelated pairs. The difference between recall of related pairs and recall of unrelated pairs was, however, about the same for both groups.
In other words, unrelated pairs are just that much harder to learn than related ones (which we already know) — over time, learning them just before sleep vs learning early in the day doesn’t make any difference to that essential truth. But the former strategy will produce better learning for both types of information.
A comparison of the 12-hour and 24-hour results (this is the bit that will help us disentangle the effects of sleep and wakefulness) reveals that twice as much forgetting of unrelated pairs occurred during wakefulness in the first 12 hours, compared to wakefulness in the second 12 hours (after sleep), and 3.4 times more forgetting of related pairs (although this didn’t reach significance, the amount of forgetting being so much smaller).
In other words, sleep appears to slow the rate of forgetting that will occur when you are next awake; it stabilizes and thus protects the memories. But the amount of forgetting that occurred during sleep was the same for both word types, and the same whether that sleep occurred in the first 12 hours or the second.
Participants in the Morning and Evening groups took a similar number of training trials to reach criterion (60% correct), and there was no difference in the time it took to learn unrelated compared to related word pairs.
It’s worth noting that there was no difference between the two groups, or for the type of word pair, at the 30-minutes test either. In other words, your ability to remember something shortly after learning it is not a good guide for whether you have learned it ‘properly’, i.e., as an enduring memory.
The study tells us that the different types of information are differentially affected by wakefulness, that is, perhaps, they are more easily interfered with. This is encouraging, because semantically related information is far more common than unrelated information! But this may well serve as a reminder that integrating new material — making sure it is well understood and embedded into your existing database — is vital for effective learning.
The findings also confirm earlier evidence that running through any information (or skills) you want to learn just before going to bed is a good idea — and this is especially true if you are trying to learn information that is more arbitrary or less well understood (i.e., the sort of information for which you are likely to use mnemonic strategies, or, horror of horrors, rote repetition).
 . Memory for Semantically Related and Unrelated Declarative Information: The Benefit of Sleep, the Cost of Wake. PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2012 ;7(3):e33079 - e33079. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0033079
Full text available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0033079