The Sleeping Brain Remains Attentive to Its Environment

Summary: Researchers demonstrate our brains can track sounds within the environment as we sleep. The study suggests this ability could allow us to sleep in safety and wake at the correct moment.

Source: Monash University.

By exposing sleepers to complex sounds, researchers from the CNRS and ENS Paris1, in collaboration with Monash University (Australia), have just demonstrated that our brain can track the sounds in its environment while we sleep, and favor the most relevant ones. This aptitude could be one of the mechanisms that allow us to sleep in complete safety and wake up at the right moment. The study is published in Nature Human Behaviour on January 14, 2019.

It can be tempting to take a nap on a bus or in a train. But how to make sure you don’t miss your stop? Sleep appears to be accompanied by a loss in our capacity to perceive and interact with our environment. Yet previous experiments have shown that certain sounds are perceived during sleep. For instance, a sleeping person tends to wake up more easily at the sound of their first name rather than the name of another person.

Until present, research had concentrated on the sleeping brain’s capacity to process isolated sounds. However, this scenario is not representative of everyday life: we often sleep, both during the day and at night, in rich acoustic environments where various sounds are superimposed and mixed with one another. Upon waking, individuals automatically tend to concentrate on the source that makes sense.

child sleeping
Upon waking, individuals automatically tend to concentrate on the source that makes sense. image is in the public domain.

In this study researchers identified the cerebral responses made while sleeping by a number of participants, who were simultaneously exposed to two voices that were highly similar in their acoustic properties, but radically different in terms of meaning: one pronounced excerpts from dialogues or articles, while the other pronounced a flow of words resembling French, but devoid of meaning. Scientists then used a technique that can reconstruct what the sleepers hear based on their brain activity. They were subsequently able to confirm that during light sleep, participants favored the message that held meaning for them. As a result, even while sleeping and unconscious, the brain records surrounding sounds, separates various acoustic sources, and selects those that are the most comprehensible.

This capacity to focus on what is relevant is temporary, as it involves only slow-wave and light sleep. The brain appears capable of processing information from the outside world during this sleep stage, but only for short periods of time… Sleeping on a bus is not so problematic, as long as you do it with just one ear closed.

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Monash University
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Sleepers track informative speech in a multitalker environment” by Guillaume Legendre, Thomas Andrillon, Matthieu Koroma & Sid Kouider in Nature Human Behaviour. Published January 14 2019.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Monash University”The Sleeping Brain Remains Attentive to Its Environment.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 15 January 2019.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Monash University(2019, January 15). The Sleeping Brain Remains Attentive to Its Environment. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 15, 2019 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Monash University”The Sleeping Brain Remains Attentive to Its Environment.” (accessed January 15, 2019).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Sleepers track informative speech in a multitalker environment

Sleep is a vital need, forcing us to spend a large portion of our life unable to interact with the external world. Current models interpret such extreme vulnerability as the price to pay for optimal learning. Sleep would limit external interferences on memory consolidation and allow neural systems to reset through synaptic downscaling. Yet, the sleeping brain continues generating neural responses to external events, revealing the preservation of cognitive processes ranging from the recognition of familiar stimuli to the formation of new memory representations. Why would sleepers continue processing external events and yet remain unresponsive? Here we hypothesized that sleepers enter a ‘standby mode’ in which they continue tracking relevant signals, finely balancing the need to stay inward for memory consolidation with the ability to rapidly awake when necessary. Using electroencephalography to reconstruct competing streams in a multitalker environment, we demonstrate that the sleeping brain amplifies meaningful speech compared to irrelevant signals. However, the amplification of relevant stimuli was transient and vanished during deep sleep. The effect of sleep depth could be traced back to specific oscillations, with K-complexes promoting relevant information in light sleep, whereas slow waves actively suppress relevant signals in deep sleep. Thus, the selection of relevant stimuli continues to operate during sleep but is strongly modulated by specific brain rhythms.

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