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To Understand the Big Picture, Give It Time -- and Sleep

lops during "off-line" periods and that, like procedural memory, would be enhanced following a period of sleep.

So, the researchers tested 56 healthy college students, each of whom was shown five pairs of unfamiliar abstract patterns – colorful oval shapes resembling Faberge' eggs. The students were then told that some of the patterns were "correct" while others were "incorrect," for example, Shape A wins over Shape B, Shape B wins over Shape C, and so on. All of the students learned the individual pairs but were not told that there was a hidden "hierarchy" linking all five of the pairs together.

After a 30-minute study period, the students were separated into three groups to test their understanding of the larger "big picture" relationship between the individual patterns: Group One was tested after a period of 20 minutes; Group Two was tested after a 12-hour period; and Group Three was tested after a 24-hour time span. In addition, approximately half of the students in Group Two slept during the 12-hour period, while the other half remained awake. All of the students in Group Three had a full night's sleep.

The test results showed striking differences among the three groups, especially between the students who had a period of sleep and those who remained awake.

"Group One, the students who were tested soon after their initial learning period, performed the worst," says Walker. "While they were able to learn and recall the component pieces [for example, Shape A is greater than Shape B, Shape B is greater than Shape C] they could not discern the hierarchical relationships between the pieces [Shape A is greater than Shape C] – they couldn't yet see 'the big picture.'"

Groups Two and Three, on the other hand, demonstrated a clear understanding of the interrelationship between the pairs of shapes.

"These individuals were able to make leaps of inferential judgment just by letting the brain have t
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