Sleep not just protects memories against forgetting, it also makes them more accessible

Cortex. 2016 Jan:74:289-96. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.06.007. Epub 2015 Jul 27.


Two published datasets (Dumay & Gaskell, 2007, Psychological Science; Tamminen, Payne, Stickgold, Wamsley, & Gaskell, 2010, Journal of Neuroscience) showing a positive influence of sleep on declarative memory were re-analyzed, focusing on the "fate" of each item at the 0-h test and 12-h retest. In particular, I looked at which items were retrieved at test and "maintained" (i.e., not forgotten) at retest, and which items were not retrieved at test, but eventually "gained" at retest. This gave me separate estimates of protection against loss and memory enhancement, which the classic approach relying on net recall/recognition levels has remained blind to. In both free recall and recognition, the likelihood of maintaining an item between test and retest, like that of gaining one at retest, was higher when the retention interval was filled with nocturnal sleep, as opposed to day-time (active) wakefulness. And, in both cases, the effect of sleep was stronger on gained than maintained items. Thus, if sleep indeed protects against retroactive, unspecific interference, it also clearly promotes access to those memories initially too weak to be retrieved. These findings call for an integrated approach including both passive (cell-level) and active (systems-level) consolidation, possibly unfolding in an opportunistic fashion.

Keywords: Forgetting; Item fate; Memory consolidation; Reminiscence; Sleep.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Wakefulness / physiology*