How It Works, Research, and More

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

After all, sleep plays an important role in learning. You need the right amount of restful sleep for optimal performance when it comes to memory, motivation, mood and more.

Read on to learn more about the role sleep plays in learning.

Sleep is sort of the secret ingredient to locking in new things you learn throughout the day and connecting new memories to existing ones.

Although future research could help experts better understand the mechanisms behind the scenes, existing evidence suggests that sleep can have a major impact on health To learn and memory.

Sleep affects learning and memory in two ways:

  • Sleep promotes memory consolidation, a key factor in understanding new information.
  • Sleep deprivation can negatively impact concentration and focus, and make it difficult to learn new things.

The process of learning and remembering new information occurs in three separate phases:

  • Acquisition when you come across new information
  • Consolidation, when processes in your brain help stabilize learned information
  • remember when you access learned information after your brain has stored it

Capture and recall take place while you are awake. Memory consolidation, on the other hand, appears to occur during sleep—when the neural connections that help develop enduring memories become stronger.

Sleep deprivation can have many unwanted effects, including mood swings, an 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 adequate sleep, attention and focus tend to wander. If you cannot concentrate, acquiring new information becomes more difficult. You may also find it difficult to recall existing memories. Overworked neurons have a harder time coordinating information properly, so they can no longer absorb information previously learned.

The likelihood of learning new things can drop quite a bit because sleep deprivation puts a strain on the hippocampus, the part of the brain most responsible for creating new memories.

So, those late-night crammers just before a big test? You might have slept better.

The different stages of sleep can be divided into two categories:

  • REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
  • non-REM sleep

Existing evidence suggests that non-REM sleep appears to play a significant role in sleep learning.

  • ONE Study 2013 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 pointed to sleep spindles — sudden surges in oscillatory brain activity detected on an electroencephalogram during the second phase of non-REM sleep — as key players in memory consolidation.

Experts are still trying to understand how the brain learns during sleep.

in one Small study 201846 participants examined associations between words and images of objects or scenes before a nap. Then 27 participants took a nap for an hour and a half while the rest stayed awake for 90 minutes.

The researchers repeated half of the words to the nappers in their sleep in order to reactivate the newly learned image memories. After they woke up, they showed them the words again and asked them to recall the scene and object photos.

The results suggested that they were better able to recall the images associated with the words repeated during their nap.

In a similar way Small study 2019the researchers played pairs of words, one true and one false, to the sleeping participants during the slow sleep phase. The actual word described something bigger or smaller than a shoe box. When the participants woke up, the researchers asked them if the wrong word was describing something bigger or smaller than a shoebox.

Their answers were more accurate than mere coincidence could explain, suggesting that humans may actually be able to encode new information during deep sleep and remember it later.

The type of learning that occurs during sleep usually involves pairing, conditioning, and association. These skills could potentially help you remember a piece of music or learn a new language faster.

In other words, it may be possible for the things you learn during your waking hours to stick in your memory long-term – simply by sleeping.

Refine your language skills

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

The researchers played a series of fake words and the fake meanings behind them to the sleeping participants. For example, they offered the word “guga” to mean elephant.

After waking up, the participants were asked to translate the wrong words in a multiple-choice test. Her ability to find the “right” meaning was far better than mere chance.

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

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

Boost your music performance

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

In a small 2012 study, 16 participants from various musical backgrounds learned to play two tunes by pressing keys aligned with a series of moving circles. (If you’ve ever played Guitar Hero, you’ve got the idea.)

Participants then napped for 90 minutes, long enough to drift into deep sleep, while a tune was played repeatedly. After the nap, the participants were able to play both songs better, but the researchers noticed particular improvements when it came to the song they unknowingly listened to during their nap.

Try it: Play the piece of music you want to repeat while you sleep.

Break an unwanted habit, like 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 to sleeping participants when they released the scent of shampoo or deodorant through a nasal mask, then a different tone when they released the smell of carrion or rotting fish. Upon waking up, participants had a stronger sniffing response when hearing the sound associated with the pleasant smell.

A small 2014 study looked at 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 spoiled fish or rotten eggs.

They smoked fewer cigarettes the next day and for several days afterward.

Looking for tips to kick an unwanted habit? start here

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 a myriad of ways. Not getting enough sleep can certainly leave you feeling low on energy, 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 allowing time to relax before bed can help you sleep better so you can get the most out of your sleep learning. Just don’t expect to learn a whole new language overnight.


Breanna Mona is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. She has a master’s degree in media and journalism and writes about health, lifestyle and entertainment.

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