4 Things You Can Literally Learn In Your Sleep

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Sleep learning used to be a pipe dream. But now neuroscientists say they have found ways to enhance your memory when your eyes are closed.

The idea of learning as you sleep was once thought very unlikely, but there are several ways to try to help you acquire new skills as you doze.

While there is no method that will allow you to acquire a skill completely from scratch while you are unconscious, that doesn’t mean that you still can’t use sleep to boost your memory.

So far, at least four methods have shown promise.

The simplest strategy harks back to the research of a 19th Century French nobleman named the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. As he explored ways to direct his dreams, the Marquis found that he could bring back certain memories with relevant smells, tastes or sounds. In one experiment, he painted a scantily clad woman while chewing on an orris root; when his servant then placed the root in his mouth as he slept, the tart flavor brought back visions of the same beautiful lady in the foyer of a theater. She was wearing “a costume that would have hardly been acceptable to the theater committee,” as he wrote with delight in his book, Dreams and How to Guide Them.

So what can we learn or cement in our dreams?

1. Vocabulary in foreign languages.

For one study, two groups of native German speakers were given a list of Dutch-to-German words to memorize at 10 p.m., right before they went to sleep. Researchers then told one group to hit the hay, while they kept the other awake. Over the next few hours, both groups were exposed to the audio of some of the words they had learned, along with new ones. Researchers were careful to make for sure that those who were asleep were listening to the recording during non-REM sleep, or slow-wave sleep, which is when declarative memories are consolidated. 

At the end, the researchers found that the sleeping time helped German speakers learning Dutch vocabulary, allowing them to remember about 10% more.

The study proves that sleeping can be much more efficient if we understand how it works.

This technique, which researchers call “verbal cueing,” can be done by anyone, as long as the language recording is played within the first few hours of sleep (aka the time when we’re in slow wave sleep). Also, the recording must feature words that you have already been exposed to because the study did not find new words could be learned during sleep.

2. Playing a tune.

To test the impact on learning, researchers taught some subjects a complex sequence of finger movements – a little like learning to play a tune on the piano – before 30 minutes of sleep. The benefits were immediate – straight after the training, they were about 10% better than the controls, suggesting the computer game really had begun to stabilize their memories as if they were actually asleep. Importantly, the improvements continued to grow as they were tested throughout the following week, supporting her theory that sleeping could help memories to blossom.

3. Where you put something.

In a 2011 study, the researchers had participants memorize associations between various images and sounds with locations on a computer screen before taking a nap. Then, while the subjects slept, the researchers played some of the sounds back to them. Afterward, the participants were more adept at remembering the memorized locations for sounds they’d heard while sleeping than those they hadn’t, just as with the melodies in the new experiment. Strikingly, the sounds hadn’t woken the sleepers, and they had no conscious memory of having heard them during their naps.

The experiements went on and on.

Another researcher, Mr. Diekelmann, for instance, asked her volunteers to play a variation of the game Concentration, in which they had to learn a specific pattern of objects in a grid before going to sleep in her lab. Some of the subjects were exposed to a subtle, artificial, odor as they played, and Diekelmann then wafted the same scent into their noses as they slept. Brain scans showed that these subjects had greater communication between the hippocampus and several cortical areas, compared to those without the cue – just the kind of activity that should lead to enhanced memory consolidation. Sure enough, those subjects remembered about 84% of the object locations when they awoke, while a control group remembered just 61%.

4. How to protect special memories.

In the near future, technology may offer further ways of upgrading the brain’s sleep cycles. Memory consolidation is thought to occur during specific, slow, oscillations of electrical activity, so the idea here is to subtly encourage those brain waves without waking the subject.

Scientists think that our brains use a special tagging system to separate critical memories from less-important ones. Those the brain flags as 'important' get sent straight to our long-term memory, while less important memories are washed away by new ones. But researchers think there may be a way to hack this system to our advantage, and it can be applied during sleep.

So we are just beginning to see that deep sleep actually is a key time for memory processing.

Although scientists don’t have a full understanding of how our brains cement memories during deep sleep, they believe that the mind may habitually review the day’s events during each night of sleep. The new study establishes that this tendency might lend itself to the intentional reinforcement of memorizing relatively complex tasks. The researchers plan to further probe this ability by testing whether other sorts of memories, such as motor skills or other habits, might be enhanced by exposure to stimuli during sleep.

In the meantime, this experiment should be inspiring for enterprising do-it-yourself folks interested in maximizing their own memory potential. For those seeking to learn a new language, memorize vocabulary or commit lines of dialogue to memory, you’ve got about 7 more hours a day to work with.

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