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Before a test, teachers and parents tell students to get a good night's sleep. Most researchers today accept the fact that a good night's sleep improves memory. But can one also learn during sleep? Research has yielded controversial results. Based on review of lots of this research, I believe that people are capable of learning while they sleep. During light (stages 1 and 2) and REM sleep, different forms of mental activity take place.
What is sleep? What is learning? Sleep, "the natural periodic suspension of consciousness," (1) is indicated by certain brainwaves. Neurons in the brain produce electrical impulses. Voltages between electrodes attached to the patient's scalp are recorded by an electroencephalogram (EEG), showing the brain waves of sleep. Some researchers are precise in making sure that their subjects are in EEG-defined sleep before giving "lessons." Studies obtaining more positive results begin their lessons at sleep onset, therefore involving the learning process during wake and sleep hours. To learn is "to gain knowledge or understanding . . . by study, instruction, or experience; . . . to come to realize." (2)
Introducing new material right before sleep improves the memory of that which has just been learned. After encountering new material, memory of this material increases slightly for a short time before falling. (3) Stimuli presented at the same time interfere with memory. Some believe that sleep blocks outside distractions. Neurons may continue to store memory while the learner sleeps.
My mother was advised when my sister was late in learning to crawl that she must learn to do so before walking, even if she preferred rolling. Somehow, part of the brain prepares for the concept of reading by using opposition of arms and legs. Humans follow learning patterns so that the neural pathways are prepared to learn.
Brains work and process information before and after learning sessions for optimum learning, not just when one is studying. However, the ultimate point of finding out if one can learn during sleep is to achieve "sleep-assisted instruction" for new material, not to just condition the brain so it can learn when awake. If the neurons in the brain do continue to store the memory of what has been learned before sleep, I believe it would be very possible for it to store information "heard" during sleep. The question is: Can the sleeper hear new information being presented, and will the brain process that information?
One interesting study was done on the ability of people to respond during sleep. (4) During stage one sleep, the subjects were told to associate a word with a simple body movement, like scratching their face. When the word was then repeated, 11 out of 18 subjects performed the previously suggested action while still sleeping. Therefore, people can respond to outside environment when sleeping, leaving the remaining question: Will the neurons process this newly learned information into memory for later recall? When awake, no subject remembered the instructional episode and none implicitly performed the action in response to the key word. The next night, however, without reminder of the key word's meaning, the subjects responded appropriately. Some even performed the action on cue in their sleep when the word was repeated five months later, with no reminder. Perhaps one cannot remember what one has learned during sleep unless asleep. This theory is called "sleep specific memory." (5)
Many people make connections between their learning in sleep and wake periods by solving problems in their dreams. In their dreams, which are associated with their daily problems, they may solve their problem straight out. Analysis of their metaphorical dream may reveal their solution. Therefore, the mind can process information and think things through during sleep. However, some speculate that these dreamers have already figured out the solution, their dreams just help them to "come to realize" their discovery. In order for sleep learning experiences to be useful, the sleepers must remember them when they wake up to apply the newly learned information.
It may be easier for people to remember what they have learned in their sleep if they are told beforehand that they will be learning in their sleep and that they are to try to remember what they learn. (6) Yet, one does not have to know that one is learning in order to learn. It has been widely reported that infants who listened to Mozart's music do better in math. Perhaps the neural patterning happens through experience, not through study or instruction.
It is speculated that those who are more easily hypnotized find it easier to learn in their sleep. (7) I think that everyone has the capability to learn during sleep. It may be a hidden talent that everybody has and must work at to develop. The results could be unimaginable. Most people spend about one third of their lives asleep. If we could learn during our sleep, we could save a lot of time. How and under what circumstances can one learn new material while sleeping? Perhaps the answer will come to researcher in a dream. If only the researcher can remember how this problem is resolved upon waking up.
* This essay was originally prepared for the Sleep Trainee 1999 High School Essay contest, then revised slightly for this TQ sleep site entry.
(1) "sleep," Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, 1967.
(2) "learn," Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, 1967.
(3) BUZANTONY V. USE BOTH SIDES OF YOUR BRAIN: THIRD EDITION. NEW YORK: DULTON1991. P. 63 - 65.
(4) Evans, F. J. Gustafson, L.A., O'Connel, D.N., Orne, M. T. Shor, R.E. (1970). Verbally induced behavioral responses during sleep. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 150, 171-187 (As cited in: Bootzin, Richard R, Kihlstrom, John F., and Schacter, Daniel L. eds. Sleep and Cognition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1989. p. 92-94, 106.)
(5) Bootzin, Richard R, Kihlstrom, John F., and Schacter, Daniel L. eds. Sleep and Cognition. Washington: American Psychological Association, 1989. p. 92-94.
(6) Bootzin, Richard R, Kihlstrom, John F., and Schacter, Daniel L. eds. Sleep and Cognition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1989. p. 101-105.
(7) Bootzin, Richard R, Kihlstrom, John F., and Schacter, Daniel L. eds. Sleep and Cognition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1989. p. 101-105.[an error occurred while processing this directive]