Can You Really Learn In Your Sleep?

Just like electricity, we humans always look to take the path of least resistance.  For example, there must be an easier way to learn besides studying.  Like listening to tapes while we sleep.

There’s actually a term for it — hypnopedia, or sleep learning.  Unfortunately, the thought that we could learn something substantive while we sleep has no basis in fact.  And yet, a study published recently in the journal Nature Communications has reported that we do make memories while sleeping.

This study’s subjects were 20 volunteers with no history of sleep disorders.  They listened to white noise while sleeping, with a series of split-second acoustic patterns scattered throughout the recordings.  After being awakened, they listened to the same recordings and were able to pick the acoustic sequences out of the white noise at a rate better than randomly guessing.

The study’s co-author, neuroscientist Thomas Andrillon, said the key is the complexity of the information being listened to:

The lack of meaning worked in their favor; sleepers can neither focus on what they’re hearing nor make explicit connections, the scientist said. This is why nocturnal language tapes don’t quite work — the brain needs to register sound and semantics. But memorizing acoustic patterns like white noise happens automatically. “The sleeping brain is including a lot of information that is happening outside,” Andrillon said, “and processing it to quite an impressive degree of complexity.”

Unfortunately, this finding only applied to certain parts of the sleep cycle.  During the deepest stage of the cycle, sequences “presented during non-REM sleep led to worse performance, as if there were a negative form of learning.”   This suggests that memories are pruned or strengthened depending on the sleep stage, which may be why we sleep in the first place.

So although you can’t effortlessly learn a foreign language while sleeping, your brain is still working, even though exactly what it’s doing is still beyond our current comprehension.

The source is “It May Actually Be Possible to Learn in Your Sleep” by Cari Romm (

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