How it works, research and more


Learning while dozing sounds like a dream come true (pun intended), but it’s not that far-fetched.

Sleep plays an important role in learning, after all. You need the right amount of restful sleep for peak performance in memory, motivation, mood, etc.

Read on for details on the role sleep plays in learning.

Sleep is the secret sauce, so to speak, for locking in the new things you learn throughout the day and linking the newly formed memories to the ones that already exist.

While future research may help experts better understand the mechanisms at work behind the scenes, existing evidence suggests that sleep may have a major impact on learning and memory.

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 focus and concentration, making it difficult to learn new things.

The process of learning and memorizing new information takes place in three distinct stages:

  • acquisition, when you encounter new information
  • consolidation, when processes in your brain help stabilize the information learned
  • remember, when you access information learned after your brain has stored it

Acquisition and recall occur while you are awake. Memory consolidation, on the other hand, seems to occur during sleep, when the neural connections that help develop lasting memories become stronger.

Sleep deprivation can have many side effects including mood swings, increased risk of high blood pressure, and changes in appetite and weight, to name a few. But lack of sleep can also affect your memory and concentration.

Without good sleep, attention and concentration tend to wander off. When you can’t concentrate, it becomes more difficult to acquire new information. You might also have trouble remembering existing memories. Overworked neurons have a harder time coordinating information properly, making it difficult for you to capture the information you learned earlier.

The chances of learning new things can drop quite sharply, as sleep deprivation negatively impacts the hippocampus, the part of the brain most responsible for creating new memories.

So those sleepless nights spent cramming right before a big test? You might have done better to sleep.

The different stages of sleep fall into two categories:

  • REM sleep
  • non-REM sleep

Existing evidence suggests that non-REM sleep appears to have an important role in learning to sleep.

  • A 2013 study suggested that the slow wave sleep phase of non-REM sleep is essential for memory consolidation, which helps prepare the brain for learning the next day.
  • A 2018 study also indicated that sleep spindles – sudden increases in oscillatory brain activity detected on an EEG during the second stage of non-REM sleep – were key players in memory consolidation.

Experts are still trying to figure out how the brain continues to learn during sleep.

In a small study 2018, 46 participants examined associations between words and images of objects or scenes before a nap. Then, 27 participants napped for an hour and a half, while the rest stayed awake for 90 minutes.

The researchers repeated half of the words to the sleepers while they slept to reactivate memories of newly learned images. They showed them the words again after they woke up and asked them to remember the photos of the scene and the object.

The results suggest that they might remember images related to repeated words better during their naps.

In a similar small study 2019, the researchers played pairs of words, one true, one false, to participants napping during the slow phase of sleep. The real word described something bigger or smaller than a shoebox. When the participants woke up, the researchers asked them if the fake word described something bigger or smaller than a shoebox.

Their responses were more precise than chance could explain, suggesting that people may, in fact, be able to encode new information during slow sleep and remember it later.

The type of learning that occurs during sleep tends to involve matching, conditioning, and associations. These abilities could potentially help you remember a piece of music or learn a new language faster.

In other words, it is possible that the things you learn during your waking hours will stay etched in your long-term memory just by sleeping.

Sharpen your language skills

The same small study 2019 above also explored whether sleeping people could make new associations between foreign words and their translations.

The researchers played out sets of fake words and the fictitious meanings behind them for the sleeping participants. For example, they came up with the word “guga” to mean elephant.

After waking up, participants were asked to translate the false words on a multiple choice test. Their ability to find the “correct” meaning was far better than pure chance.

These results suggest that it may be possible to become familiar with and recognize different aspects of language, such as meaning, accent or tone, during sleep.

Try: Play your favorite language learning tool, CD or spoken dialogue in the language you want to learn while you sleep.

Improve your musical performance

Are you trying to develop your skills as a musician? Hearing the music you want to learn while you sleep can help you remember it and play it better when you are awake.

In a small study from 2012, 16 participants from diverse backgrounds in music education learned to play two melodies by pressing keys aligned with a series of moving circles. (If you’ve played “Guitar Hero” before, you get the idea.)

Participants then napped for 90 minutes, long enough to fall into slow sleep, while a melody was repeated. After the nap period, participants were able to perform both songs better, but the researchers noted particular improvements in the song they unknowingly heard during their nap.

Try: Play the song you want to play on repeat while you sleep.

Break an unwanted habit, such as smoking

Another type of learning, conditioning, can also take place during sleep.

The results of another small study from 2012 suggest that people can learn to associate sounds with smells during sleep.

The researchers played a specific tone on sleeping participants when they released the scent of shampoo or deodorant through a nasal mask, and then a different tone when they released the scent of rotting carrion or fish. Upon awakening, participants had a stronger sniffling response when they heard the tone associated with the pleasant scent.

A small study from 2014 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 the smell of rotten fish or rotten eggs.

The next day, and for several days after, they smoked fewer cigarettes.

Are you looking for tips to eliminate an unwanted habit? Start here.

Experts continue to study the role of sleep in learning and memory, but there’s no denying that sleep patterns can affect your brain and body in a number of ways. Not getting enough sleep can drain you of your energy, yes, but a sleep-deprived brain also has a harder time storing and remembering things you learned while awake.

Sleeping tips like creating a sleep schedule, limiting the time you spend with devices, and taking time to relax before bed can help you sleep better so you can do your best learning. some sleep. Don’t expect to learn a whole new language overnight.

Breanna Mona is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. She has an MA in Media and Journalism and writes on health, lifestyle and entertainment.


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