Sleep ‘conducive time’ to work with memories, unlearn biases on race, gender issues, research finds
While we know sleep is important for our brain and helps put memories to rest, new research has found we can also unlearn some biases around race and gender while we doze.
Professor of psychology Ken Paller, the director of the cognitive neuroscience program at Northwestern University, is one of the authors of a study published in the journal Science.
Professor Paller said the results applied to unconscious bias too.
“The implicit memory is information we store but don’t know we have it, and that information is used when we make decisions,” he said.
“Even though we might not even agree with the stereotype – that knowledge of the stereotype is something we’ve encoded in our brain.
“One of the stereotypes was that women aren’t associated with doing science.
Sleep is different because we’re processing that information without new information coming in, at least not very much … so that might be a particularly conducive time for working with the memories.Professor of psychology Ken Paller
“So we linked up science words with faces of women and sort of reversed the stereotype of women not being associated with science.”
That part of the training took place while study participants were awake.
While they napped, subtle audio cues from the training were played again to reinforce what was learnt while the participants were awake.
“Sleep is different because we’re processing that information without new information coming in, at least not very much,” he said.
“So that might be a particularly conducive time for working with the memories and relating them to each other, and improving the storage and how information is integrated with other information you’ve learned.”
Benefits likely stronger after ‘whole night’s sleep’
The United States research was led by Xiaoqing Hu from the University of Texas.
“Our study found that we can basically reinforce the counter-bias memories during sleep, so participants became less biased on both gender as well as race after they woke up,” he said.
The researchers tested the effects of the training, using an indirect method to show how the association was processed in the brain.
“It’s a rather indirect way we measure it, though, one could ask people, ‘well how sexist are you feeling today?’ or something, and you might not get very good answers on that question,” Mr Hu said.
“So, instead we asked the question quite indirectly by [asking] everyone to press buttons as quickly as they can when they see faces of men and women and words that are related to science or to arts.
“If the button assignments are such that every time they use the same button for women and for science words people tend to be slower pressing the buttons compared to if we rearrange things so that every time they’re pressing a button it’s the same button for women and art-related words.”
The researchers found the effects of the study lasted at least a week in some participants, however, there was potential for longer-term results.
“In our study, we had a nap session, so we think any benefits we have from this study might get even stronger during a whole night’s sleep,” Mr Hu said.