Could Sleep Change Our Deeply Rooted Attitudes?



It is human nature to develop likes and dislikes over time; this can include whom you are attracted to physically or what your favorite food is. It can also include race and gender biases, whether conscious or not. Is it possible to “fix” negative prejudices in our minds – perhaps ones that have been there forever? Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin believe they can be fixed – and that a good night’s sleep is part of the answer.

Scientists know that sleep can boost memory skills by resuscitating faint neuron activity in the brain during earlier periods of the day. Researchers believe that giving a sleeping person cues related to a previous period of learning may stimulate this process. This theory has been tested – and so far confirmed – in young children, but is now shown to be effective in influencing implicit attitudes learned earlier.

In a series of experiments, volunteers participated in activities designed to counter typical race and gender biases by adding positive language when looking at a picture of a minority or woman. A distinct sound was added to each type of counter-bias to drive the point home. The volunteers then took an hour and half nap, during which one of the sounds was played repeatedly with the goal of reactivating the newly learned association.

The research team found that shortly after waking up, and again one week later, that implicit gender and race biases were reduced for patients that received the sound activation. By finding this process to be effective, scientists hope that it will inspire more research to help solve remaining problems of targeted memory reactivation during sleep. Once the process is fully understood, it may be used to treat a number of different things – including helping people overcome trauma. It will take some time before this process is proven to be fully effective, but the more we know the closer we will be. 

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