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Can you learn in your sleep?

What if you could sharpen the mind simply by sleeping? According to studies outlined in David Robson’s BBC article “Can you learn in your sleep?” you can. Let’s take some time to talk about the definition of sleep learning, as well as the methods used for making it work. 

What is sleep learning? 

The concept of sleep learning has been portrayed in media ranging from Aldous Huxley’s frightening, negative utopia, “Brave New World,” to beloved sitcoms like “The Simpsons.” In both of these examples, sleep learning is introduced as a way to acquire new information when one is resting. It works like this: After you fall asleep for the night, someone will play the same message over and over again until you wake up. Even if you aren’t aware of it, the brain absorbs this information and remembers it during the day.

But is this portrayal accurate?

Not exactly. Sleep learning in this definition is an interesting theory, no doubt, but one that was disproved long ago. That’s not to say sleep learning doesn’t exist at all, but instead, it works to help you remember information you’ve already acquired.  

How does sleep learning affect the memory?

In his BBC article, Robson mentions several studies that demonstrate how one can increase information retention while resting. One such study, conducted by Susan Diekelmann at the University of Tubingen, involved two groups of students playing a concentration game. While they were playing the game, one group of students was exposed to a subtle odor. Diekelmann exposed the same group of students to the same odor while everyone was asleep, which significantly impacted each student’s ability to recall object locations from the concentration game the next day.

Those who were exposed to the odor both while they played the game and while they slept remembered about 84 percent of the object locations when they woke up, while the group that was not exposed to any distinct smells remembered only about 61 percent. 

How is this possible? It seems that smells and sounds can “trigger the sleeping brain to replay the learning of skills or facts, reinforcing the memory in the process,” according to Robson. This is good news for anyone who struggles with vocabulary when learning a new language or has trouble memorizing music on the piano. While it certainly can’t be a substitute for practice and concentration during the day, sleep learning can enhance your efforts, so you continue to improve. 

Sleep Learning


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