Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

To Sleep, Perchance to Learn

By Tim Hannan

New research finds that we can learn while we’re asleep under certain conditions.

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We spend one-third of our life asleep, but those who don’t seem to appreciate the joys of oblivion at the end of a day bemoan that this is a waste. It has often been speculated that the time spent asleep could be used productively to learn verbal information, such as a new language, although evidence for this has been so limited that some neuroscientists have declared it impossible. Now, a new study has found that if complex auditory information is presented at exactly the right time in the sleep cycle, learning of verbal material may indeed occur.

It has long been known that during sleep the brain engages in processes that help to strengthen or consolidate information acquired during the day. Through the continued activation of relevant networks, memory traces are strengthened and integrated with other information. This observation that the brain is active in aspects of learning and memory during sleep has given rise to attempts to market products that purport to facilitate sleep learning, promising that the sleeper will learn a language in 30 days without any daytime effort.

In contrast, neuroscientists have argued that sleep learning is not only unproven but implausible, as the brain is not in a state in which learning could occur. It is known that learning requires long-term potentiation of neurons in the hippocampus, and all available imaging techniques...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.