We know about the brain benefits of a good night’s sleep. Sleeping not only recharges us physically but also helps reduce brain fog, improve clarity, and improve memory and recall. Now, science is discovering that it may be possible for us to learn while we sleep.
In the past it was believed that we needed consciousness for memories and learning. New studies have hinted at the possibility that we can learn new material while we sleep at the unconscious level of the mind—and we can retain that information upon waking.
A study published in Currently Biology found that participants’ brains could be infused with made up vocabulary words while they napped. The meaning of those words were tied to their native language of German. While this is not the same as learning an entirely new language, the participants did show an ability to retain the words even though they had not encountered them previously on a conscious level. Study author Marc Zust from the University of Bern says, “What we found in our study is that the sleeping brain can actually encode new information and store it for long term. Even more, the sleeping brain is able to make new associations.”
In the study, researchers made up pseudo words that were linked to a certain meaning. None of the participants had any previous contact with the new words. The team targeted specific periods of sleep–the deep sleep stage not usually associated with dreams. During this stage of sleep, neurons coordinate their activity for a period of time in what’s called an up state before going into a down state. As the participants napped, each wore an EEG to monitor brain waves and the researchers played the word associations through headphones. Each word was played four times, matching the rhythm of the sleeping brain and the second word coincided with the up states. The sleeping brains heard a total of 36 distinct word pairs with 146 repetitions. The point in time the second word was played was crucial because this was the moment with the word associations could be formed and when neural plasticity was optimal.
Upon waking, the researchers showed the participants the made-up words and asked them if the object denoted was smaller or larger than a shoe box—tapping into their unconscious memories. When the second word in the pair coincided with the up state in deep sleep, the participants performed significantly better on the testing. The study found, however, that the improvement was only seen when they hit the precise up state with the word presentation.
Many of us think of sleep as a time when everything shuts down and we’re in downtime, but the reality is it’s anything but. While we sleep, the brain is working overtime to clean itself of the toxic buildup that accumulates during the course of a day.
More importantly, sleep is the time when our brains organize our memories. During certain stages of sleep the brain replays our memories re-activating the neurons responsible for storage. This essentially teaches the brain what to remember. It allows the brain time to decide which memories are important and which can be discarded leaving more room for storage.
Scientists have learned that in the sleeping brain the hippocampus, and brain regions associated with learning, stay active during sleep. Previously it was believed that this area of the brain was only active during consciousness. Says Zust, “These brain structures appear to mediate memory formation independently of the prevailing state of consciousness—unconscious during deep sleep, conscious during wakefulness.”
Sleep may turn out to be the new wave in learning as science proves we have the ability to boost what we learned during the day and make the information stick while we sleep without even being aware of the learning process. As we move through our day, our various experiences are transformed into memories that spread through networks in the hippocampus. These activities strengthen the connections between neurons. Our memories are stored in these changes in synaptic strength. What’s more, science has figured out that slow wave sleep doesn’t just strengthen these connections, it also inhibits the neurons requires for forgetting information. So, sleep is our new aid for better memory.
In 2015 a team from Paris published a study that virtually proves the theory. The team recorded activity from the cells of a mouse as it explored a circular chamber. They then picked a single cell, which encoded a precise location in the chamber. When this cell was reactivated during sleep, the scientists then stimulated the pleasure center of the mouse’s brain, creating a false association between the cell and the sensation of pleasure in that area of the chamber. Instead of enhancing previous learning, the scientists actually formed a new memory in the mice when they were asleep. When the mouse awoke, he immediately moved to that area of the chamber hoping to duplicate the pleasure sensation he had experienced when he was asleep.
The theory is this can be replicated in humans. Scientists in Israel experimented with taking people who smoked and linking the smell of cigarettes to the smell of something unpleasant such as rotten eggs hoping to help them kick the habit. After the experiment, the participants experienced a 30% reduction in smoking without being consciously aware of the association.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sleep learning. With more study and better techniques, students can learn faster with minimal effort. Addicts may be able to free themselves from addiction more easily. PTSD sufferers may learn to replace difficult memories with pleasant ones. Over achievers with little time may be able to learn a new skill or a new language without infringing on daily tasks.
To get the most benefit from your sleep, be sure to incorporate BrainTap into your nighttime routine. BrainTap improves brain function and helps you get deep, restorative sleep night after night to give your brain the time it needs to prepare for another busy day.
Elevate your mind: Subscribe to our newsletter for insights on brain health, cutting-edge research updates, and personalized session suggestions to help you unleash your ultimate potential!