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How to Learn While You Sleep

Scientists say you can improve memory while you sleep.

By Candice GalekPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
Photo of woman learning via Pexels

The concept of learning in our sleep has entered the minds of artists and scientists alike; the possibility that one day we could drastically improve our productivity by learning while sleeping is appealing.

Let's not get into the nitty-gritty of how it works because quite honestly sleep spindles and neuro processes are not my forte. What I will venture to say is that the possibility is there, and for the first time researchers better understand how to improve memory in your sleep.

Is It Possible to Learn While You Sleep?

A team of researchers set out to investigate. Scott Cairney, from the University of York in the United Kingdom, co-led the research with Bernhard Staresina, who works at the University of Birmingham, also in the U.K.

Cairney explains the motivation for the research, saying, "We are quite certain that memories are reactivated in the brain during sleep, but we don't know the neural processes that underpin this phenomenon."

To test their hypotheses, Cairney and his colleagues asked 46 participants "to learn associations between words and pictures of objects or scenes before a nap."

Afterward, some of the participants took a 90-minute nap, whereas others stayed awake. To those who napped, "Half of the words were […] replayed during the nap to trigger the reactivation of the newly learned picture memories," explains Cairney.

"When the participants woke after a good period of sleep," he says, "we presented them again with the words and asked them to recall the object and scene pictures."

"We found that their memory was better for the pictures that were connected to the words that were presented in sleep, compared to those words that weren't," Cairney reports.

How to Improve Memory While You Sleep

Thanks to this research we know that our brains continue to learn while we sleep and that researchers are closer to understanding precisely why this happens.

I once tried learning a new language in my sleep and saw varying results. I had been using an app called Duolingo with some success and decided to ramp up my progress by watching Youtube language learning videos while I slept.

After scrolling through endless options of Spanish vocabulary videos on Youtube I decided on one with a female speaker who had a peaceful voice. I thought since I would be sleeping it should sound calming. I fell asleep practicing Spanish and awoke to recall the words more clearly.

I thought it was a great success considering I hadn't even known it was a possibility prior to that day. The issue I ran into was that the videos didn't match up with where I was in my lessons. It would be great if someone created vocabulary videos that paired with lessons on popular apps like Duolingo or Busuu that users could pair together for maximum learning.

One unexpected problem I ran into was that my cat didn't seem to appreciate some random person speaking all night long, he seemed much more agitated the mornings after I played language videos overnight. 

I would like to give it another try in the future once I am more fluent, I enjoyed how quickly I fell asleep practicing the vocabulary words. Perhaps next time I will try using headphones so my cat isn't disturbed by my incessant learning, we all know he's the king of the castle.

Cons of Learning While You Sleep

I am curious if there are any negative impacts of this learning method. We are supposed to rest and allow our brains to simmer down, right? I wonder if I would be doing myself more harm than good in the long run. Quality of sleep is very important to me, right up there with getting at least 8 hours of sleep.

If my brain is constantly working, will my quality of sleep suffer? These are things we will better understand once more research is done, but perhaps I'll try to keep notes on my own little sleep experiment to update you in the future.

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About the Creator

Candice Galek

Miami based entrepreneur turned environmental non-profit founder. Forbes 30 Under 30 Honoree. Inc. Magazine columnist. Always learning.

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