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You Really Can Learn in Your Sleep

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You Really Can Learn in Your Sleep

Experimental techniques demonstrate how to strengthen memories when our brains are offline

Scientific American,

5 min read
3 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Scents and sounds infiltrate the sleeping mind, and may strengthen existing knowledge.

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It’s the summer of 1942 and Lawrence LeShan is in a room with 20 sleeping boys. “My fingernails taste terribly bitter,” he says. Soon, he’ll say it again, then again. LeShan will repeat the phrase 300 times as the boys lay sleeping. No, it’s not the plot of a bizarre horror movie. It was an experiment. Of the 20 boys subjected to LeShan’s nighttime intonations, eight stopped biting their fingernails. Compare that to the control group, where all 20 of the boys continued with their nail-biting. LeShan’s results probably sound dubious, but more recent research on sleep-learning may surprise you. And for anyone with nagging bad habits, this article might offer hope for change.


Productivity can be increased through sleep-learning.

In his 1932 masterpiece Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a child memorizing a radio broadcast in a language he doesn’t speak while he’s sleeping nearby – but that was just a totalitarian brainwashing fantasy. Tibetan Buddhists believe that a phrase whispered while they sleep might help them appreciate the delusional nature of dreams. They probably weren’t the first to try to make more effective use of the hours traditionally lost to sleep. New scientific research, however, suggests that important forms of learning occur during sleep.

More ambitious experimentation on sleep learning started in the 1920s and continued through the mid-1950s, when the RAND Corporation attempted to teach participants by exposing them to recorded facts while they slept. Disappointingly, the participants in the RAND experiment only remembered the answers they’d heard while in various stages ...

About the Authors

Ken A. Paller is a professor of psychology and director of the cognitive neuroscience program at Northwestern University. His recent research on targeted memory reactivation was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Delphine Oudiette is a research associate for the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM) at the Brain & Spine Institute and at the sleep disorder unit located at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, both in Paris.

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