Do you learn while you sleep?
At some point, whether in a cartoon or television show, you’ve probably encountered the idea that all you need to do to learn a new skill is to put on a pair of headphones before you go to bed and listen to a repetitious recording during the night and, hey presto, you’re speaking fluent German the next morning!
In reality, this concept was disproved a long time ago – back in the 50s to be exact! Research was published based on trials that had been conducted by Charles Simon and William Emmons. These scientists attached electrodes to the scalps of the participants so they could monitor when they entered deep NREM sleep. Once the subjects had achieved this sleep phase, tapes were played but the participants awoke the next morning having learned nothing.1 Thus the notion passed into the realms of fiction.
Okay, so you can’t magically learn a new language overnight, but is there another way that sleep can help you to learn new skills and information? Well, yes, actually there might be and it’s all to do with your memories!
Can sleep enhance your memory?
Despite sleep apparently not being a gateway to quick learning, it definitely is incredibly important for maintaining and consolidating memories. In my blog, ‘What happens to your memories while you sleep?’ I explore this relationship a bit more extensively – what I’ll mention for the time being is that deep NREM sleep is crucial for your memory and that scientists have found that the spike in oscillatory brain activity during second stage NREM sleep in particular, is vital.
So, sleep can help to support your memory which, in turn, can be useful if you’re desperately trying to cram in new information or memorise facts in preparation for an upcoming exam or test. That’s why I’d try to avoid those all-night study sessions – you could be hindering your ability to store and process all that new information you’re desperate to learn!
New research is also coming forward to support the idea that it may be possible to strengthen certain memories using auditory cues – not worlds away from some of the old theories during the 50s!
A group of scientists and researchers from universities across the UK managed to enlist 46 participants for a specific sleep study taking a look at how memories can be reactivated during NREM sleep. This group were required to learn and memorise associations between words and images or scenes, then some of the group were asked to go for a 90 minute nap.2
During this nap, scientists monitored the subjects sleep using the spikes in oscillatory brain activity to keep an eye on when they would be most likely to be processing new memories and information. Half of the words they had been learning were replayed to reactivate the participants’ memories – the result was that this nap group were better able to connect the word and images compared to those who did not nap.
Sleep may not be a gateway to new information, but it is certainly the way forward if you want to be able to retain and enhance your memory of any new information you’ve learned and it isn’t just limited to words and languages! In another study, this time looking at your ability to learn musical skills, volunteers were taught how to play a number of guitar melodies. During their naps, one group was played the melody they’d just learned and, once awoken, this group was able to play the melody better when compared to the other group.3
Snoozing for your learning
Okay, it’s fair enough to say that you can enhance your ability to recall new information and facts but most of these studies were carried out in laboratory environments. Nobody at home is going to sit and monitor your sleep, waiting until you enter just the right phase, before playing just the right amount of information.
So, is it back to the old headphones approach? No, not really. I don’t know about you but most of us might find it a tad difficult to get to sleep if someone is repeatedly mumbling German in our ears or playing a piano melody. Instead, if you really want to enhance your memory and therefore you’re ability to retain new information, you’re going to have to take a serious look at your sleep routine.
Sleep deprivation can have a real impact on your memory – not only will it affect your ability to recall information, you’ll find your concentration waning and your ability to make decision cohesively may also be hindered – not ideal in an exam environment! As I mentioned earlier, you may want to rethink those all-nighters!
Of course it’s not always possible to get a good night’s sleep before an exam or test, which is why I’d recommend a gentle herbal sleep remedy like Dormeasan. Dormeasan contains a blend of Valerian and Hops which can help to relax your nervous system, making you feel calmer and more open to resting, allowing you to achieve a deep sleep without any groggy side-effects the next morning!
If you’re looking to improve your memory recall, it may also be worth looking at factors such as your diet and lifestyle. Too much sugar, processed foods and refined carbohydrates can affect your blood sugar levels which will have a knock-on effect on your sleep patterns. Instead, focus on getting plenty of brain-boosting nutrients into your diet – omega-3 and antioxidants like vitamin C may be beneficial here! Why not read our nutritionist’s Emma’s blog ’11 brain boosting foods’ for more inspiration!
You could also take a look at our natural remedy Ginkgo biloba. This ancient herb is traditionally used to support your circulation, helping to increase the blood flow through your brain which may have positive repercussions for your concentration and memory!
Don’t be afraid to spend some time away from whatever it is you’re trying to learn too. Get outside in the fresh air and soak up some vitamin D. Spending time in the sunshine can be a real mood booster which may prevent you from burning out and losing patience with your studies!