BY: SAMANTHA TAPP
Imagine how much easier life would be if we could learn while sleeping. Throw a textbook underneath your pillow and you’d ace the exam; hold onto your notes and your presentation would go flawlessly; use a cookbook as a pillow and you’d wake up as the next top chef. Well, turns out you can learn while you sleep. Not necessarily in the seamless, dream-world way that would make life so much easier, but in a certain way, it is possible.
The idea of learning while sleeping is a theory that has been tested for years. While we sleep our brains are still busy processing recollections from the previous day, sending memories from the hippocampus (the part of the brain where memories are made) to different parts of the brain to form long-term storage. Because of this, scientists have always played with the idea of enhancing this natural process. Through trial and error, scientists have landed on five things we can learn while we sleep with the help of sound.
Remember where you put something
A cognitive study conducted in 2013 used a computer program to test people’s memory linked to sleep. Essentially they got 60 adults to place a virtual object in a certain location on the screen. While the participants performed this task, the researchers played a specific tune.
Next, they had the group nap two different times for an hour and a half each time. The first time they let the participants sleep in silence, the second time they played the same tune that they played while they had placed the object on the computer.
The results showed that the groups’ memory, obviously, faded after both naps, however it faded less so after the nap where they were subconsciously exposed to the tune. Maybe next time you are frantically searching for your keys around the house, you should switch your iPod on.
Interestingly enough, the group had even better memory when they were told that the object they had placed was at “great value.” Classic.
Trying to pass your French test? Even better, travelling the world and want to learn the native language of your next spot? Sleep on it. No, really. In a recent sleep study, researchers gathered a group of native German speakers and instructed them to begin learning basic Dutch. The basis of the study was to discover whether they could influence how much the men learned by interfering with their sleep.
The researchers split the men into two group and told them to go to bed. One group, unknowingly, was exposed to the sounds of some basic Dutch vocabulary while they slept. The other group weren’t exposed to anything. Later, both groups were tested on their knowledge of Dutch and the study found that the group who was exposed to the sound could better identify and translate the language.
To ensure the results related to sleep and not merely the result of the men hearing the words, they had another group of men listen to the Dutch language while they walked around. The results found that the men didn’t recall the words like the sleeping men did.
Learn a musical skill
Similar to the foreign language study, a study was conducted in 2012 to discover if sleep could have any influence over learning a musical skill. Researchers got a group of people to play guitar melodies using a technique borrowed from the video game Guitar Hero.
By now you know, the participants were asked to nap. Unknowingly, half of the sleeping participants slept in silence while the other half subconsciously listened to the same melody they had just played. The group who had been exposed to the sound played the melody way better than the group who had not. If only I had known this trick when I was forced into piano lessons for years and years, maybe I could’ve convinced my parents that a nap would be more productive than practice.
Learn to associate smells with sound
Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science set out to discover if people could learn new associations all together while sleeping. In their study, they started the research while the volunteers were sleeping. Throughout the night they would play a tone and accompany it with either a pleasant or gross odour. With each tone, the researchers would alternate the smells.
As the night wore on, the researchers noticed that the participants’ breathing patterns changed with the smells, as they would inhale deeper with a pleasant small, while they would breathe in short, ragged sniffs when the bad smell was presented.
When the group awoke, the researchers played the tones for them without any odours. The results found that the participants would still breath deeply or in short, ragged breaths, depending on which tone was playing and what smell it had been accompanied with. They discovered that because these were all new associations developed while the participants slept, they had learned this association entirely while sleeping.
Protect special memories
Scientists believe that humans use their brain in a particular way when storing special memories, it’s called a tagging system. Basically, the memories that are deemed important get automatically sent to our long-term memory while those that are of less importance come and go as new memories are made.
In a recent study, researchers worked towards discovering if people who listened to a certain sound that is linked with a memory were better able to remember it when they heard the sound again.
The researchers gathered a group and instructed them to place different icons on a computer screen in specific locations. Whenever a participant moved an icon, a specific noise was made. Then, they napped. Half were exposed to the same sounds that the icons produced while they slept, while the other half were not. The study found that those who listened to the sounds were able to better recall all of the objects. They even found that just one sound could trigger multiple memories.