How To Keep Learning Even When You're Asleep

Everybody knows that sleep helps our brains sort out, reorder and make sense of all the information it consumes during the day. But now a team of neuroscientists has shown that it's possible to continue learning through the night, too. Here's how you can give it a try.

The idea of learning by osmosis might be some kind of childish dream, but it turns out that exposure to certain cues while we're asleep can actually reinforce memories and enhance recall when we wake up.

A team of researchers from Northwestern University had participants sit down and learn to play two songs on a keyboard. Then, they were left in a comfortable room to take a 90-minute nap. During that time, one of the songs was played repeatedly while they were in slow-wave sleep.

When the participants were tested following their naps, they were better at recalling and playing the song they had heard while sleeping. The results are published in Nature Neuroscience. If you're skeptical, you'll probably assume that this is akin to those tales of people learning foreign languages while they sleep. Not the case, explains aul J. Reber, one of the researchers, to Smithsonian:

"The critical difference is that our research shows that memory is strengthened for something you've already learned. Rather than learning something new in your sleep, we're talking about enhancing an existing memory by re-activating information recently acquired."

Scientists currently only have a vague understanding of what really happens in our brains during sleep, and they certainly don't know how the brain cements memories during sleep. But this new finding does at least go some way to explaining how it's possible to improve the process.

During sleep it's obviously impossible to prompt the brain to enhance learning using anything other than auditory stimuli, at least on a practical level. So, in order to continue learning through the night, you need to be able to reinforce your experiences during the day with an overnight soundtrack.

In the case of learning music, the choice is obvious—but things get a little more complex if your pursuits aren't typically auditory. You might want to listen to the spoken word if you deal with language or communication, for instance. If your work's more analytical, you could try listening to podcasts based around the topic in question, though it's a long shot.

Whatever you choose, though, remember that you'll just be reinforcing what you've already learned, not adding knowledge. And if you're trying to improve your purely visual skills, you can forget it.

Whatever form the intervention takes, though, it's worth a shot. The typical American sleeps 7.6 hours a night—on average 200,000 hours in a lifetime—so it makes sense to exploit every hour you can to improve your cognitive powers. Now where the hell are my headphones... [Nature via Smithsonian]

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