What drives sleep-dependent memory consolidation: Greater gain or less loss?
When memory is tested after a delay, performance is typically better if the retention interval includes sleep. However, it is unclear what accounts for this well-established effect. It is possible that sleep enhances the retrieval of information, but it is also possible that sleep protects against memory loss that normally occurs during waking activity. We developed a new research approach to investigate these possibilities. Participants learned a list of paired-associate items and were tested on the items after a 12-h interval that included waking or sleep. We analyzed the number of items gained versus the number of items lost across time. The sleep condition showed more items gained and fewer items lost than did the wake condition. Furthermore, the difference between the conditions (favoring sleep) in lost items was greater than the difference in gain, suggesting that loss prevention may primarily account for the effect of sleep on declarative memory consolidation. This finding may serve as an empirical constraint on theories of memory consolidation.