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Life hack: science says you can learn in your sleep, for real

Dive In
  • Writer's pictureThe CareerBeacon Team

We all know that dedication to ongoing learning is one of the best ways to increase your value in the job market.

Well, have you ever wondered if you can learn in your sleep? Think of all the time you’d save.

It’s pretty well established that sleep plays a big role in the learning process, but past research has mostly focused on the consolidation of learning during sleep. Meaning that when we sleep we solidify and strengthen what we learn when we’re awake.

When it comes to absorbing new information, there’s less evidence that this is possible. So, researchers at the University of Bern, Switzerland, recently decided to look at this question.

Science Daily explains it: “If re-play during sleep improves the storage of wake-learned information, then first-play — i.e., the initial processing of new information — should also be feasible during sleep, potentially carving out a memory trace that lasts into wakefulness.”

So, this is what the study authors set out to test. The research group examined whether a sleeping person is able to create associations between words in a made-up language and their native German.

German-speaking participants were played an audio recording while they napped. The recording presented fake words and their German translations. These included “tofer,” which means “key,” “guga,” which means, “elephant,” and “biktum,” which means “bird.”

Participants were then presented with the fake words while they were awake, but this time without translations. Discover Magazine reports that participants didn’t know they’d been listening to a recording while they slept, so they were unaware that they’d heard the words before.

Participants were asked to imagine the object the word represented, and to guess whether it was bigger or smaller than a shoebox – ostensibly tapping into subjects’ unconscious memory.

Researchers found that participants were able to correctly classify foreign words as larger or smaller than a shoebox at an accuracy rate that was significantly better than chance.

“It was interesting that language areas of the brain and the hippocampus — the brain’s essential memory hub — were activated during the wake retrieval of sleep-learned vocabulary because these brain structures normally mediate wake learning of new vocabulary,” says Marc Züst, co-first-author of this paper. “These brain structures appear to mediate memory formation independently of the prevailing state of consciousness — unconscious during deep sleep, conscious during wakefulness.”

“If you present ‘biktum’ and ‘bird’ to sleeping humans, their brains can make a new connection between the known concept ‘bird’ and the completely new and unknown word, ‘biktum,’” said Marc Züst, a co-author of the paper, according to Discover. “This sleep-formed memory trace endures into the following wakefulness and can influence how you react to ‘biktum’ even though you think you’ve never encountered that word before. It’s an implicit, unconscious form of memory – like a gut feeling.”

Essentially what this suggests is that we can learn while sleeping, which is pretty exciting.

“What we found in our study is that the sleeping brain can actually encode new information and store it for the long term. Even more, the sleeping brain is able to make new associations,” said Züst. “I find it amazing that humans are capable of such sophisticated information processing without consciousness.”

Might as well keep listening to those podcasts before bed, even if I fall asleep. Maybe I’ll still learn something.

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