Learning in your sleep

By John Pastor • Published: November 27th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

The concept of great ideas dawning on people in their sleep is not new. Legend has it that the tune for “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney in a dream.

But is the reverse true?

In the novel “Brave New World,” writer Aldous Huxley imagined how sleep-learning could be used to teach children about societal values. And students from grade school to graduate school dream of going to bed, playing an audio of some sort and waking up full of new knowledge.

For the most part, scientists have believed that sleep-learning is impossible. It was accepted that people can fortify memories during sleep, but whether they could learn something entirely new was the stuff of fantasy.

But it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Researchers from Weizmann (Whytz-man) Institute paired pleasant and unpleasant odors with different tones during sleep and found that slumbering subjects did indeed learn.

Scientists found that if they matched audio tones with certain odors, people started sniffing if they heard the same tone when they were awake, even if the odor was not present.

The scientists say when it comes to smells, the brain behaves the same way awake or asleep. People deeply inhale pleasant aromas. But their breathing becomes short and shallow with unpleasant odors.

The following day, people couldn’t remember hearing the tones, but when they heard a sound from the night before, their breathing quickly matched up with the pattern they learned in their sleep.

The research is the first to prove the human brain can learn during sleep. The next step is to determine the types and limits of information that can be learned.

The good news is sleep-learning may have promise as a technique to reinforce good habits and break bad ones. But if you are behind in English literature, it’s not quite the solution you are looking for.

You are still going to have to read “Brave New World” yourself.