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Practicing Skills In Your Sleep Can Be as Effective as Physical Training

Just imagining movement fires the same neurons as if we were actually moving. A new study shows we can wake our sleeping mind to practice motor skills in our dreams.

 

Mental training is arguably as important as physical fitness. That argument is gaining strength as a growing body of literature unravels the once-mysterious connections between consciousness and movement. We know that the murky domain of subconscious and autonomic actions greatly influences our waking lives. Now we’re learning how to train our unconscious selves for the benefit of our daily actions.


Neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás attributes this skill to the art of prediction. Before consciousness arose in multicellular creatures, primitive life developed a nervous system to navigate through its environment—a biological property he terms ‘motricity.’ By predicting where it has to move the organism ensures its survival.

Interestingly, Llinás noticed that thinking fires motor neurons, the pathway we use to move our bodies. He believes thinking is an internalized form of movement; what we call consciousness is a mental representation of this phenomenon. Our mental maps allow us to predict how to navigate our environment. Combined with memory, our inner GPS creates and constantly updates this road map of prediction: move here, don’t go there, act this way but not like that.

Athletes have understood this for some time: visually picture yourself performing your sport and you strengthen the motor connections between brain and body. Indeed, just picturing movement fires the same neurons as if you were doing it. Motricity meets metacognition.

This we’ve known for some time. But what about training while asleep? We know proper rest leads to better performance. Plenty of evidence proves the all-night cram to be a myth. A better time to retain information is after cardiovascular exercise. This makes sense. We’re designed for movement. Hunched over books all night without sleep is not an optimal training program. Eight hours of shuteye followed by a quick 5k is.

What’s happening during those eight hours, though? More to the point, can we use that time for training as well?

Turns out we can. Dr. Tadas Stumbrys decided to investigate whether sleep training had any positive correlation with physical performance. The vehicle he used was lucid dreaming, a unique mental state in which consciousness and the unconscious seemingly merge. While some people naturally acquire this skill, there are training methods to help you learn to take control of your dreams, affording you a Matrix-style cinema screen inside your head every night.

Stumbyrs and team had four groups—“frequent lucid dreamers (25%), a mental practice group (23%), a physical practice group (24%) and a control (no practice) group (24%)”—engage in a sequential finger tapping exercise. Alarms rung in the night to signify the commencement of their assigned practice. They were measured the following day for improvements.

In the end all three practice groups improved their physical skill. Interestingly, the lucid dreaming group improved more than the physical practice group by 3 percent and the mental rehearsal group by 8 percent.

The neural mechanisms responsible for physical movement are similar between the three states of consciousness studied: waking, lucid dreaming, and daydreaming:

A recent brain imaging study showed that brain activity in the sensorimotor cortex that is responsible for controlling our physical movements is similar during imagined and lucidly dreamed movement, thereby allowing motor learning to occur.

In his book, Waking, Dreaming, Being, philosophy professor Evan Thompson investigates consciousness through the lens of lucid dreaming, a topic he’s studied for decades. Dreaming isn’t random, he writes, but a “spontaneous mental simulation” that helps us imagine ourselves in the world. While awake we envision a reality we’d like to create and then pursue its manifestation—metacognition and motricity. This is also possible when you know you’re dreaming.

Borrowing from Buddhist philosophy, Thompson writes that the key is to understand “witnessing awareness,” which is essentially what we do while conscious and unconscious. This is the process of the little me inside my head picturing the physical me in the ‘real’ world. Just don’t confuse this for dualism. This is all one me.

One way to strengthen this inner dialogue of thought and action, of perception, prediction, and movement, is meditation. This discipline of self-awareness helps cultivate an ability to step back from daily patterns and envision yourself as part of the larger world, which changes your relationship to your actions. The same holds true while lucid dreaming.

Once you’re able to sustain the lucid dream state, he writes, you can transform it:

Use your imagination to manipulate the dream. Be playful. Change things and transform them…Explore the plasticity of the dream. In this way, the mind’s supple nature will manifest, and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the dreamscape as a mental construct, a product of imagination.

As the study shows, the imagination is the thoroughfare for the manifestation of ideas into reality while asleep and awake. Envisioning the goal is the first step in physically acting on it. All life is movement, from the neuronal firings of an idea to our bodies moving through space to accomplish it. Lucid dreaming turns out to be yet another field in which to sharpen our skills, another step in this complex and fascinating journey of self-understanding and self-mastery.

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Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
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  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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