How well you sleep can dictate how well you remember faces and names

How often have you met someone for the first time, only to later have trouble remembering their name? Researchers have uncovered a link to sleep quality and its impact on memory.

A team at Northwestern University has conducted research documenting the impact sleep has on face-name recall. Contributors of the study include authors, Nathan Whitmore, a Ph.D. candidate at the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern, Ken Paller, professor of Psychology and Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Northwestern Ph.D. candidate in Psychology, Adrianna Bassard.

The team found uninterrupted sleep significantly improved memory of newly learned face-name associations. Researchers believe that neural events that take place during sleep may strengthen and stabilize memory.

The study consisted of twenty-four participants between the ages of 18-31 who were asked to participate in a memory exercise. The subjects were asked to memorize the faces and names of 40 pupils from a Latin American history class and another 40 from a Japanese history class. Participants were shown the faces again and asked to recall the name with each corresponding face.

The second part of the study included a nap while researchers monitored brain activity and sleep quality using EEG measurements. When the subjects were found to be in slow-wave sleep, names the subjects had learned previously were softly spoken, along with music that had been played earlier in the day in one of the classes. After the subjects woke, they were retested and asked to recognize each face and recall each name. This sound cue, along with deep sleep, resulted in improved memory, averaging a little over 1.5 more names being recalled after the subjects woke up.  

There are several key findings in this study that contribute to the overall understanding on how sleep quality affects our memory. As researchers develop deeper knowledge surrounding the relationship between disrupted sleep and memory, this accuracy could help provide further insight into conditions such as sleep apnea—which has been known to impair memory.

The team is exploring new facets of this research to address whether sleep disruption could be used to weaken unwanted memories, or if losing too much quality sleep at night has long-lasting detrimental effects. High quality sleep provides restorative memory benefits and may have other useful implications to a person’s cognitive health.

This study was first published in the journal Nature.

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Steve Fink

Steve Fink is the Editor-in-Chief of, and He is formerly the Vice President of News Engagement for CBS Television Stations’ websites, and spent 20 years with CBS.


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