Does Sleep Learning Work?

A quick internet search will turn up dozens of products claiming to help you learn while fast asleep. But is there any truth to these claims?

A couple of decades ago, many people thought you could learn while you sleep. Tapes playing vocabulary for learning a new languages or repeating lists of key facts as a revision aid were sold in virtually every newspaper and magazine. Unfortunately this idea turned out to be a fraud, perpetrated by people who sold sleep learning materials and equipment. Now good quality scientific research has shown this to be the case, such offers have been relegated from any reputable publications.

But does this mean the dream of making better use of those hours of unconsciousness is gone?

Modern research has shown that while we are asleep the brain is consolidating the day's events into our long term memories. So, maybe rather than trying to learn brand new information while asleep we could find a way to enhance the memory consolidation process and end up being able to recall either a greater proportion or even a specific set of information that you already learned during the day.

A fundamental principle of the way memory works is association. Could we take advantage of this natural tendency of the brain to link ideas and sensations together, in order to trigger memory consolidation of specific events.

Let consider the example of trying to learn a new language. If we played the sound of a thunderstorm while studying during the day, and then again later on that night while asleep, would the brain, through the association of those two ideas, recall and therefore reinforce the memories of that study period.

Some testing of this idea has already been carried out. Scientists at Northwestern University flashed up 50 random objects in different locations on a computer screen, at the same time as an object was displayed the researchers also played a sound, with a different sound for each object. They then asked the participants to take a nap, during which the same sound were played for half of the images they had previously seen. Recording of brain waves showed that they were responding to these sounds during sleep.

After waking the subjects were tested for their recall of the location of the 50 images. Finally the researchers measured the distance between the location identified by the participant and the correct position of each object. The researchers determined that the accuracy of the participants object locations was significantly higher for those objects whose associated sound had been played during the nap.

So the game isn’t quite up for sleep learning after all. By using triggers to promote the recall and therefore reinforcement of selected experiences we can improve on our natural recall and so reduce the number of repetitions we have to make of our chosen subject while awake in order to commit it to our long term memory.

It is also worth noting that in the study mentioned above the associated sounds were presented only during the deep stages of sleep. It is possible the effect identified in this study could be further increased by providing the triggers during an REM (dreaming) phase of sleep.

It is well documented that external sounds heard while dreaming are both incorporated into and can change the course of a dream. Therefore it is possible, particularly if we consider stacking a chain of trigger sounds to lead a dream down a particular path to promote memory formation for the original learning event. In essence we would direct the brain to reactivate the latent memory and re-run the experience, this would therefore constitute a memory rehearsal and so improve the future recall of any of the material contained within the experience.

There is scope for expanding this idea even further. After activating the memory of the learned information we could interact with it directly through a lucid dream.


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