Sleep Learning: All About Nocturnal Intelligence

sleep learningThe idea that you can learn how to speak a new language or stop smoking while you sleep has been around forever. The very idea of sleep learning excites those multitasking overachievers of the world who want to learn how to speak Italian while simultaneously catching some z’s. It also appeals to the lazy folks of the world who would prefer to nocturnally cram for their physics test and wake up a genius rather than studying during their waking hours. But does it work? Yes and no.

Today, we will discuss the various opinions on sleep learning, as well as some of the ways it happens (there are some things you can do to help). For anyone out there who’s excited about the idea of sleep learning, and thinks they can go to sleep not knowing how to knit, then wake up able to whip up a scarf for their mom, shouldn’t get their hopes up. The sleeping mind is still a big mystery to even the smartest people on the planet, and learning a skill is not as simple as popping on some headphones before bed and becoming an expert seamstress. If our discussion of sleep learning causes frustration because you have trouble getting to sleep, and are jealous of those who can just conk out, this course on optimizing your sleep will help improve your health, your energy, and your mind.

What Happens During Sleep

Like we said before, and you probably already know, those hours when we’re snoozing away are still a pretty big mystery to scientists. The sleeping brain does some pretty weird stuff, and it’s not completely understood how well some information is processed as we sleep. It’s not even known exactly why we sleep, though there are some interesting theories out there. What is known about our sleep habits are its phases. If your sleep habits are just fine, but your child’s are all over the place, this course on gentle sleep success will help you coach you little one into a slumber.

  • NREM 

The non rapid eye movement phase begins the sleep process. The stages of NREM are 1) onset, 2) light sleep, and 3 & 4) deep sleep. This phase lasts 60-90 minutes before the next phase kicks in, which lasts another 20-30 minutes, after which, NREM starts up again, and the cycle repeats itself 4-6 more times in healthy adults. The NREM phase of sleep is when the more physical parts of the body are tuned up: tissues are repaired and regenerated, bone and muscle are built up, and the immune system is strengthened. This is why the older we get, the more light, NREM sleep we need in order to make repairs. If you’re feeling your age and would like to feel younger, this course on cutting your age in half will help you feel younger, healthier, and more vibrant.

  • REM 

The rapid eye movement phase of sleep is when most dreams occur and the brain uses the most energy. This is the deep sleep counterpart to the lighter NREM phase, and this is where dreaming happen. Here, the body becomes immobile and there is heightened brain activity as blood flow increases to it, so any kind of memory processing or learning that might occur during sleep is happening during this phase. If you happen to dream about something you learned during the day, that’s a good sign that your brain is processing this new material, and means you may even improve your knowledge of it. Some studies have shown that there are benefits to studying right before you sleep, by either studying in the afternoon, then napping, or studying before you go to bed at night.

Some theories about why we dream say that it helps to retain, organize, and understand what we’ve learned, so in this way, you’re learning while you sleep. Regarding new language skills, while we may not become fluent as we sleep, it can be confidently stated that if you begin dreaming in another language, you are on your way to fluency. If you’re interested in learning a new language, this article on how to learn a foreign language will help guide you through the process, and this course on teaching yourself a foreign language will show you how to save time and money by not using a teacher.

Types of Sleep Learning

When we discuss the process of sleep learning, there are two avenues to consider. The first is the one found most often in corny sitcoms or movies, where a person puts on some headphones before hitting the hay, and they wake up the next morning able to speak a new language, or knowledgeable about the battle of Stalingrad, when the night before, they knew nothing about those subjects. The other, more realistic option is the idea that sleep reinforces things you learned during your waking hours, and yes, sometimes playing back a language tape may actually help.

  • Introducing New Material

Unfortunately, there are no studies that prove that this method of sleep learning is possible. We need to be awake and conscious in order for new information to “stick”. In fact, during a deep sleep, the brain shuts out any external sensory input, which is how you stay asleep, and as a result, prevents any type of complex information from being introduced to your brain. A study was undertaken by the Journal of Neuroscience in which new odors were introduced to an animal while in deep sleep, and upon waking up, the animal had problems remembering the difference between new and older, familiar odors when awake. So, if this study translates to humans, the introduction of new information while sleeping may even delete some old material.

  • Reinforcing Old Material

This situation is the closest we will have to actual sleep learning. As we mentioned before, during the deep REM sleep phase, the brain sorts out all of the things it learned that day, which in itself is a form of learning. However, there are some other ways to make connections in your brain for newly learned info.

In the previous section, we discussed how sleeping after learning something new can help how we process that info, but not everyone is going to be tired right after studying, especially in the middle of the afternoon. Even though we’ve debunked the idea of introducing new information to the brain while you sleep, it has been proven helpful to play a recording of information that you have just learned as you sleep. For instance, if you had a Spanish class earlier in the day, then as you sleep, quietly play a recording of the lesson you had earlier, it may help with memorization. Another trick is to associate smells with information. If you are reading a chapter in your history textbook while sitting next to a burning incense stick, or a rosemary plant, then have that smell next to you while you sleep, your brain may be tricked into spending more time strengthening the memory associated with that smell.

Types of Memories

Now that we’ve explained that it’s not really learning that’s happening when you sleep, but rather your brain strengthening and processing the memories you’ve made earlier that day, let’s move on to the two types of memories associated with learning, and how they fit into the sleep process.

  • Declarative Memory 

This is knowledge based on factual information that you were exposed to, the fact that your husband’s birthday is tomorrow, or the capital of Ukraine is Kiev. You already know that REM sleep is the most important phase in processing information, and this is no different when dealing with declarative memory, but it may also include some help from the NREM phase. If the factual information you learned is complex, or emotionally charged, it is more associated with REM sleep, but there is evidence that other, less emotional and complex factual information may be processed during slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is the deepest stage of NREM sleep.

  • Procedural Memory

The other type of memory associated with learning, procedural learning, has more to do with tasks, such as how to play the guitar, or how to do origami. As you may have suspected, REM sleep plays a huge role in consolidating new procedural information, but other, more primal procedural information, such as motor learning, is processed in the lighter sleep stages. Learning that is more of a visual nature is processed in both the SWS and REM phases of sleep. If you’d like to improve skill acquisition, this course on training your brain will help get you mentally fit.

Benefits of Sleep on Learning and Memory

So now that we’ve burst a few bubbles out there about the abilities of the unconscious brain to retain new information, there is some good news regarding sleep and learning. While we may not be learning new stuff while asleep, the amount and type of sleep we get does have an effect on our learning abilities when we’re awake.

  • Lack of Sleep

Everyone knows that not getting enough sleep will negatively affect how you perform even the simplest tasks, but what are its effects on learning? If we aren’t catching enough z’s, we have trouble receiving information due to our lack of focus, attention, and vigilance. Information will not be coordinated properly due to overworked and misfiring neurons. Also affecting memories due to lack of sleep are our interpretation of events, which becomes clouded and inaccurate without sleep.

  • Naps

For those who like to take naps throughout the day, you may be actually improving your learning skills. It used to be thought that interrupting a sleep pattern, like napping, would make you forget memories, negatively affecting your ability to learn, and even lead to obesity, stress, and anxiety. There are newer studies that have shown naps to reactivate and reorganize the mind, aid in recall, and generally improve memory and problem solving skills.

So that’s all today on sleep learning for today. If you were hoping to hear that you could become a genius while asleep, sorry to ruin your plans. However, sleep is not without its benefits, both physical and mental. While this is still a very mysterious realm, and many things still aren’t yet known about the mysteries of sleep, it doesn’t take a scientist to realize you feel refreshed and ready to take on the world after a good nights sleep. If you’re one of the unlucky people who have sleep troubles, check out this course on mastering your sleep to learn why you don’t sleep, and how exactly to fix it.