Author: Winnie Mok
Editors: Angela Pan and Chiara Chen
Artist: Chiara Chen
We have all had those moments during late-night study sessions. Cramming as much information into our heads as possible, regretting not studying earlier for a test tomorrow, and wondering if there was an easier way to memorize all of this information. If only there were a way to magically learn while asleep and wake up the next morning with our work already done… There is–but likely not in the way you think.
The concept of sleep learning, also known as hypnopedia, has fascinated researchers for years. A recent example is an episode of The Simpsons where Homer attempts to control his appetite by listening to a tape while sleeping. Not surprisingly, it did not work, but it transformed the usually inarticulate Homer into something of a Shakespeare scholar.
While sleep learning cannot completely change a person, research has shown that the idea itself is not entirely unfounded. The first instance of a scientific study of the correlation between learning and sleeping was recorded in 1919 by Rosa Heine, a German psychologist. In this experiment, she discovered that learning new information before sleeping provided a better recall than learning during the day. Many more studies have been conducted since then, and we now have a general understanding that sleep aids in memory strengthening.
While we sleep, the brain relocates information learned during the day from the hippocampus to other areas in the brain. It particularly aids in the second step of the learning process–consolidation– when the brain helps reinforce new information. There are three stages in the learning process, with acquisition being the initial stage of learning new information. After this comes the aforementioned consolidation stage, and lastly, there is recall, when we retrieve the information after the brain has saved it. Both acquisition and recall occur while we are awake, but consolidation occurs during sleep.
At this point, you might be thinking, “but we already know that sleeping helps us memorize stuff better; what we want to know is if we could learn new information when sleeping, not things that we were exposed to while awake.” For this, the answer is not a definitive yes or no.
While we cannot learn an entirely new language with one night of listening to it, studies have shown that our brains are capable of the most basic form of learning during sleep: conditioning. In a 2012 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Israeli researchers discovered that people can attribute sounds to smells while asleep. The scientists played a sound and released a fish odor simultaneously to sleeping subjects. When the subjects woke up and heard the sound, they held their breath as if expecting the smell. A similar experiment conducted by Thomas Andrillion, a neuroscientist at Monash University in Melbourne, produced comparable results, showing that people can identify specific audio patterns that played during sleep.
Although these findings imply that the brain is capable of absorbing new information while asleep, there is no cheat code in life. It is best to study the material beforehand and use sleep as a way to reinforce it. Or you could try it out yourself and sacrifice one of your test scores in the name of science.
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