Tricks for enhancing learning that seem too good to be true usually are.
Learning a new language while you sleep has exactly this kind of ring to it.
How can anything you listen to while you are asleep possibly have much effect on learning?
A new study, though, suggests there may be something to the old sleep learning trick after all.
Researchers at the Swiss universities of Zurich and Fribourg wanted to see if students learning Dutch could enhance their memory by listening again to new words during their sleep (Schreiner & Rasch, 2014).
At 10 o’clock at night they were given a series of Dutch and German word-pairs to learn (they were native German speakers).
Half the group then went off to bed, while the other half had to stay up.
Both the sleeping group and those kept awake then listened to a playback of some of the word-pairs they’d learned earlier.
This was to check if repeatedly hearing some of the words had any extra beneficial effect.
At 2am both groups were given a test.
Surprisingly, the people who’d been asleep did better on the words they’d heard while asleep than those who’d been awake.
Those who were awake did no better on words they’d been listening to on the tape than ones that they’d learned earlier that weren’t on the tape.
The study suggests that listening to words during sleep can help us learn, likely because it activates the subject matter in the brain again.
One of the study’s authors, Björn Rasch, points out, though, that it isn’t enough to just listen to words while you sleep:
“You can only successfully activate words that you have learned before you go to sleep.
Playing back words you don’t know while you’re asleep has no effect.”
Dr. Rasch is optimistic about the practical uses of the method:
“Our method is easy to use in daily life and can be adopted by anyone.”
If you’re thinking of trying it, the researchers found that the learning occurred during NREM sleep.
This is the deep, dreamless sleep that happens more often in the first half of the night.
So, you would need to set it to play between, say, 12 and 2am, if you go to sleep at 11pm.
In the study the volume was set low so that it didn’t wake people up and it only involved words they’d already been learning before they went to sleep.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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