The human brain is complex in the extreme. The mere fact it is capable of storing the knowledge and skills of how to play the piano is an incredible feat. But, like any other organ in the body, it needs to be properly maintained to function at its peak. And, when it comes to the brain, what it treasures more than anything else is a good night’s sleep. Researchers using piano playing as a test have found that sleep is when the brain truly ingrains new skills learnt during the day.
All about the brainwaves
Brainwave patterns of 15 sleeping volunteers were inspected after they had been asked to learn a sequence on the keys. For the first three nights they went to bed at a normal time, with all subjects showing improvement after sleep. On the final day, however, having been allowed just three hours of sleep, subjects were much less able to get to grips with the task. Experts believe it was because they weren’t able to reach deep sleep.
Doctor Masako Tamaki, of Brown University, in the United States, said: “It's an intensive activity for the brain to consolidate learning and so the brain may benefit from sleep, perhaps because more energy is available or because distractions and new inputs are fewer.”
Dr Tamaki added: “We were trying to figure out which part of the brain is doing what during sleep, independent of what goes on during wakefulness. We were trying to figure out the specific role of sleep.”
As volunteers slept, changes were observed in the top-middle of the brain. “These specific brainwave changes occurred during a particular phase known as "slow-wave" sleep, or more commonly deep sleep,” noted Dr Tamaki.
“Those who slept did the task faster and more accurately than those who did not.”
But what about Beethoven?
All this makes good sense until you remember one thing. In his younger years, Ludwig van Beethoven was taught by eccentric musician Tobias Friedrich, an apparently disagreeable man with a habit of forcing his young pupil out of bed in the middle of the night for lessons.
Explain that one!