Welcome to the University of Sleep
There’s no denying that a good night’s sleep improves our ability to learn. And another good night’s sleep after a day of learning helps our brains categorize and consolidate memories – embedding the learning from the previous day while discarding the things we can safely forget.
But can you actually learn while you sleep?
There are only 24 hours in each day and if your day is packed, you might be wondering if there’s such a thing as “Sleep Learning” or Hypnopedia. Learning a new skill, a new language – can you do it while you sleep? In 1914, German psychologist, Rosa Heine, discovered that she retained information better when she studied it just before going to sleep. In the 1930’s a device called the Psycho-phone played motivational messages to sleepers in the hopes they’d absorb the messages and wake up smarter. Early research seemed to support the Psycho-phone but in the 1950’s, the development of the EEG monitor debunked those claims. According to Medical News Today, if any learning did happen during sleep, it was during a wakeful period when the sleeper was disturbed.
Modern research suggests that because our sleep brains are active, some learning is possible. But while our brains never truly sleep, we’re also not capable of complicated learning during sleep. Remembering the words to a song, for example can happen while sleeping because it’s a subconscious memory you’re recalling – not learning. If you want to learn to speak French, however, you and your brain will need to be fully awake.
How to solidify memories – and maybe learn too – while you sleep
Modern research has taught us much about sleep and why it’s important for our physical and mental health – but more is needed. Better understanding the health benefits of sleep opens the door to turbocharge our memory retention abilities and to learn more effectively. One scientist explained it by saying that when you’re awake, you learn new things. But when you’re asleep you refine them, making it easier to retrieve them and apply them correctly when you need them the most. This is important for how we learn but also for how we might help retain healthy brain function as we age.
Clearly a book under your pillow – or the modern version of the Psycho-phone is not going to help you learn throughout the night. But there are things you can to do to help your brain absorb – and retain – information more efficiently.
- Learn foreign words. Listening to a language recording just before you go to sleep will help you retain those words when you study them again in the morning. Experiments found that sleepers who were exposed to foreign words while they slept could recall them better than other participants who did things like walking while they attempted to learn.
- Flaunt newfound musical skills. In another study, a group of guitar players were taught a guitar before a nap. While they slept, the song was played again to them. Upon waking, the nappers could play the song just as they’d heard it.
- Find your car keys. Participants hid a virtual object on a computer screen while hearing a specific tune. Then they slept for 1.5 hours and were played the same tune while they napped. Once they were awake, they could recall the placement of the virtual object easily, while the non-nappers did not retain those memories.
- Cement an important memory. The importance of audio was again confirmed when a certain sound was associated with a specific memory. Scientists played those sounds while participants slept and, once again, they could recall those memories better than the group that did not hear anything.
Some researchers feel that stimulating the sleeping brain with new information may compromise your brain’s ability to prune and strengthen memories from the previous day. Until more research is done, you’ll have to decide if sacrificing quality sleep is a smart tradeoff for learning a few words in a different language.
Rest well & wake up ready to go!
Better sleep gives rise to better mornings, bringing your goals into focus and dreams within reach. Hungry for more sleep info? Dig into these posts:
- Do non-smokers sleep better than smokers?
- 11 reasons while you wake up in the middle of the night
- Cereal trivia – historical facts about America’s favorite breakfast food