Awareness modifies the skill-learning benefits of sleep

Curr Biol. 2004 Feb 3;14(3):208-12. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2004.01.027.


Behind every skilled movement lies months of practice. However, practice alone is not responsible for the acquisition of all skill; performance can improve between, not just within, practice sessions. An important principle shaping these offline improvements may be an individual's awareness of learning a new skill. New skills, such as a sequence of finger movements, can be learned unintentionally (with little awareness for the sequence, implicit learning) or intentionally (explicit learning). We measured skill in an implicit and explicit sequence-learning task before and after a 12 hr interval. This interval either did (8 p.m. to 8 a.m.) or did not (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) include a period of sleep. Following explicit sequence learning, offline skill improvements were only observed when the 12 hr interval included sleep. This overnight improvement was correlated with the amount of NREM sleep. The same improvement could also be observed in the evening (with an interval from 8 p.m. to 8 p.m.), so it was not coupled to retesting at a particular time of day and cannot therefore be attributed to circadian factors. In contrast, in the implicit learning task, offline learning was observed regardless of whether the 12 hr interval did or did not contain a period of sleep. However, these improvements were not observed with only a 15 min interval between sessions. Therefore, the practice available within each session cannot account for these skill improvements. Instead, sufficient time is necessary for offline learning to occur. These results show a behavioral dissociation, based upon an individual's awareness for having learned a sequence of finger movements. Offline learning is sleep dependent for explicit skills but time dependent for implicit skills.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Motor Skills / physiology*
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Time Factors