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Could Sleep Training Rid the World of Prejudice?

Could Sleep Training Rid the World of Prejudice?

When we sleep, our brains process what we have learnt throughout the day. So, is it possible for us to relearn deeply-ingrained prejudices – no matter how big or small – while we are sleeping?

According to a small study of 40 people, published in Science and carried out by Northwestern University in Chicago, it just might be!

Bearing in mind how small the study was, the authors believe that any racial or sexual bias we might have (even subconscious), could be reduced by manipulating the way our brains learn while we sleep.

All of the study participants were white and in the 18-to-30 age bracket, and took a series of tests beforehand to assess the levels of their prejudices – conscious or otherwise. (You can check out your own scores by taking the tests here.)

After they had taken the tests and their scores had be assessed, the people in the study participated in some exercises. These tasks showed the group pairs of faces with a word beneath them, and each participant had to choose the face they felt countered the typical bias.

For example, one of the pairings that popped up was a white woman’s face with the word “math” beneath, and a black man’s face with “sunshine” under it. The study participants had to choose which combination of face-and-word they felt was most opposite from one another. After the choice had been made, depending on whether the response was correct or incorrect, a sound would ring.

Following this was another exercise, in which the participant would hear the corresponding correct or incorrect tone, and choose the pairing accordingly, reinforcing the associations from the first exercise.

Once all of the tasks had been completely, the group had a monitored 90-minute nap. While they slept, the team played the sounds from the exercises again, but at a lower volume and amid white noise.

When the prejudice assessments were taken again, the team found an overall reduction in both racial and sexual bias scores. And a week later, the “sleep training” appeared to still have an effect, with the scores still lower than when the tests were initially taken.

Professor Ken Paller was the lead author of the study. He explained that to know the full effects of using “counter-bias training” (as the team has called it), a bigger experiment is needed. If an extended experiment were to take place, then study participants would have to interact with and make decisions about other people in person.

“[There] is the question of whether people in positions of authority in society, such as judges and police officers… should have their unconscious bias evaluated, and perhaps trained to some standard,” he added.

But the study authors believe this method could be applied in a variety of ways, and not just to reduce prejudice. For example, if people wanted to get rid of some of their bad habits, such as smoking, drinking, or eating unhealthily, counter-vias training has the potential to help.

As long as it’s used wisely, application of sleep training has the potential to change the world for the better – so watch this space!

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