Can we learn while we’re asleep? The premise might sound too good to be true, but a new study has suggested that it’s possible.
Researchers from Switzerland’s University of Bern have found that people can learn a new language while they’re asleep.
The study, published in Current Biology earlier this year, discovered that people in a deep sleep can learn new vocabularies.
The participants in the study were put in a controlled environment and given headphones to listen through when they slept. Their brain activity was recorded when the researchers played words from a made-up language. These fake words were paired up with their German translations – for example, the fake word “tofer” is paired with “Haus” (house) and “guga” is paired with “elefant” (elephant).
Upon waking up, the participants were given an implicit memory test. Surprisingly, they were able to correctly answer questions on the made-up words, including what they denoted and whether they were the larger or smaller objects compared to the others.
The researchers found that people’s association between the words and their meaning was stronger when the word was played during slow wave sleep, also known as deep sleep, which they described as the best moment for sleep-learning. It is when the body is most relaxed and the brain is performing memory consolidation processes.
“It was particularly interesting that language areas and the hippocampus – which normally regulate language-learning while we're awake – were also activated when learning the vocabulary learnt in deep sleep,” said co-author of the study Marc Züs in a press release.
“It seems these structures regulate memory formation independent of whatever state of consciousness we're in – whether unconsciously in sleep, or consciously while we're awake.”
This is the latest study to support the idea of sleep-learning. In 2014, a team from the Swiss National Science Foundation discovered that listening to foreign languages during sleep helps reinforce vocabulary learning. In 2012, a study by Israeli researchers found that people could associate sounds with scents that they were exposed to when they were dozing off.
While the researchers said more experiments are needed to support their findings, the study showed promise in continuous learning – even while you’re unconscious.