Learning while snoozing sounds like a dream come true (pun intended), but it’s not all that far-fetched.
Keep reading to get the details on the role sleep plays in learning.
Sleep is the secret sauce, so to speak, for locking in new things you learn throughout the day and linking newly formed memories to existing ones.
Sleep affects learning and memory in two main ways:
- Sleep promotes memory consolidation, a key factor in understanding new information.
- Sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on concentration and focus, making it tough to learn new things.
The process of learning and remembering new information takes place in three separate stages:
- acquisition, when you come across new information
- consolidation, when processes in your brain help stabilize learned information
- recall, when you access learned information after your brain has stored it
Acquisition and recall happen while you’re awake. Memory consolidation, on the other hand, appears to happen during sleep — when the neural connections that help develop lasting memories become stronger.
Sleep deprivation can have plenty of unwanted effects, including mood changes, increased risk of high blood pressure, and changes in appetite and weight, just to name a few. But lack of sleep can also take a toll on your memory and concentration.
Without proper sleep, attention and focus tend to wander. When you can’t focus, it becomes more difficult to acquire new information. You might also have a difficult time recalling existing memories. Overworked neurons have a harder time coordinating information correctly, leaving you unable to grab those bits of information you learned earlier.
The odds of learning new things can drop pretty steeply because sleep deprivation takes a toll on the hippocampus, the part of the brain most responsible for creating new memories.
So, those all-nighters spent cramming just before a big test? You just might have been better off sleeping.
The different stages of sleep fall into two categories:
- rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
- non-REM sleep
Existing evidence suggests non-REM sleep seems to have a significant role in sleep learning.
2013 studysuggested the slow-wave sleep phase of non-REM sleep is essential for memory consolidation, which helps prime the brain for learning the next day.
- A 2018 study also pointed to sleep spindles — sudden rises in oscillatory brain activity detected on an electroencephalogram during non-REM sleep’s second stage — as key players in memory consolidation.
Experts are still trying to understand how the brain keeps learning during sleep.
Researchers repeated half of the words to the nappers while they slept in order to reactivate the newly learned picture memories. They showed them the words again after they woke up and asked them to recall the scene and object photos.
The results suggested they could better recall the pictures connected to the words repeated during their nap.
In a similar
Their answers were more accurate than mere chance could explain, suggesting that people may, in fact, be able to encode new information during slow-wave sleep and remember it later.
The type of learning that happens during sleep tends to involve pairing, conditioning, and associations. These abilities could potentially help you remember a piece of music or pick up a new language more quickly.
In other words, it may be possible to get the things you learn during your waking hours to stick in your memory long-term — simply by sleeping.
Hone your language skills
Researchers played sets of fake words and the pretend meanings behind them for sleeping participants. For example, they offered the word “guga” to mean elephant.
After they woke up, participants were asked to translate the fake words on a multiple-choice test. Their ability to find the “correct” meaning was much better than pure chance.
These findings suggest it may be possible to get more comfortable with and recognize different aspects of language, like meaning, accent, or tone, during sleep.
Give it a try: Play your preferred language learning tool, a CD, or spoken dialogue in the language you want to learn while you sleep.
Ramp up your music performance
Trying to develop your abilities as a musician? Hearing music you want to learn as you sleep may help you remember and play it better when you’re awake.
In a small 2012 study, 16 participants with a variety of music education backgrounds learned to play two melodies by pressing keys aligned with a series of moving circles. (If you’ve ever played “Guitar Hero,” you get the idea.)
Participants then napped for 90 minutes, long enough to enter slow-wave sleep, while one melody played on repeat. After the nap period, participants could perform both songs better, but researchers noted particular improvements when it came to the song they unknowingly heard during their nap.
Give it a try: Play the piece of music you want to perform on repeat as you sleep.
Break an unwanted habit, like smoking
Another type of learning, conditioning, can also take place during sleep.
Results of another small 2012 study suggested people can learn to associate sounds with odors during sleep.
Researchers played a specific tone to sleeping participants as they released the fragrance of shampoo or deodorant through a nasal mask, then a different tone as they released the odor of carrion or rotting fish. Upon waking, participants had a stronger sniff response when they heard the tone associated with the pleasant smell.
A small 2014 study explored whether aversive conditioning could help people quit smoking. People who smoked regularly spent a night exposed to an unpleasant odor through a nasal mask: the smell of cigarettes combined with a smell of spoiled fish or rotten eggs.
The next day, and for several days after, they smoked fewer cigarettes.
Looking for tips to kick an unwanted habit? Get started here.
Quality sleep can boost learning and memory, but it’s also essential for good health.
Try these tips:
- Commit to a steady sleep schedule to help ease daytime sleepiness.
- Create a relaxing and restful sleep environment — comfortable bedding and relaxing smells can help.
- Revamp your bedtime routine with a warm bath, some light yoga, or meditation.
- Switch off your devices a couple of hours before bedtime to limit blue light exposure, which can stimulate your mind and keep you awake.
Experts continue to study sleep’s role in learning and memory, but there’s no denying that sleep habits can affect your brain and body in plenty of ways. Not getting enough sleep can leave you feeling drained of energy, certainly, but a sleep-deprived brain also has a harder time storing and remembering things you learned while awake.
Sleep hacks like creating a sleep schedule, limiting time with devices, and making time to unwind before bed can help you get better sleep so you can do your best sleep learning. Just don’t expect to learn a whole new language overnight.
Breanna Mona is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. She holds a master’s degree in media and journalism and writes about health, lifestyle, and entertainment.