Learning things in your sleep sounds like a great way to expanding your knowledge, doesn’t it? Stick some long track of a person talking in your ears as you drift off, wake up fluent in Spanish. Ah, we can dream. But do we need to? It turns out, there are some things you can actually learn in your sleep, or at least get a little bit sharper on.
1. Foreign words
Well, maybe waking up fluent in Spanish is still a bit out of reach. But waking up a little bit better at a second language is surprisingly achievable. A recent experiment had a group of native German speakers start learning Dutch, beginning with basic vocabulary. They then went to sleep. While they napped, the researchers played audio of some basic words back to a group of them. The other group had no audio played back. When they were later tested, the group who had the audio were able to better identify the words and translate them.
To make sure the findings were tied to sleep, the researchers had another group listen to the words while they were awake and doing something else. The sleepers still recalled the words better.
2. Learning to play music
Another study centered on a group of people learning the guitar using a technique from Guitar Hero. Afterward, all the participants had a snooze. When they woke up, they were asked to play the melody again. However, in the same style as the foreign words experiment, one group was played the melody as they slept and one wasn’t. And, in the same vein, those who listened to the sound as they slept were better at reproducing the melody after waking up.
3. Remembering where you put something
I’m sure everyone can benefit from this one. A study from 2013 had 60 adults use a computer to place a virtual object in a location on the screen. When they placed the object, they heard a specific tune. Then, there were two further experiments. The participants napped for 1.5 hours, with that time split in half. The first half had the people napping as usual, while the second nap the same tune as before was played back. After the naps, the participants memories faded – but less so after they had been played the tune. Interestingly, if the researchers told the participants that the object was of ‘high value’, the memories were even sharper.
Why does this happen?
This all comes from a phase of sleep known as ‘slow-wave sleep’ (SWS). Scientists believe that this is when when some of our short-term memories are moved into the long-term in our prefrontal cortex. Some of these experiments had the researchers able to study brain wave activity on the participants, and they noticed that the people who were exposed to the various sounds during sleep also spent more sleeping time in SWS.
Basically, if we can engage in more slow-wave sleep, learning new skills could become much easier.