Hypnopedia refers to sleep-learning, basically by playing recorded sound to yourself while asleep. You could do this by using an earpiece or just directing the recorded sound to your ears through any other means. This is a controversial concept as there is still no convincing scientific proof that this particular kind of sleep learning is almost certainly impossible. Several studies have discredited the technique’s effectiveness, but some others claim to have found that the brain indeed reacts to stimuli and processes them while asleep. This interesting article by Steve Clark first posted on Dreams contains facts about hypnopedia you should know.
Sleep learning, or hypnopaedia, is the theory that one can learn during sleep using taped recordings, or even by placing a book under your pillow and hoping for the best. Broadly speaking, research has been inconclusive. However, sleep and learning are definitely linked.
Aldous Huxley explored sleep learning in his 1932 novel Brave New World when Reuben Rabinovitch fell asleep next to a radio. When he woke up he was able to recite the entire broadcast, unfortunately for the Polish character, the broadcast was all in English.
In the 1950s, researchers ran an experiment where subjects were played recordings of trivial facts about sport, history and science while they slept. When they woke they were tested and, unsurprisingly, performed poorly when asked about the trivia.
Sleep learning is not all hokum
However, sleep has been associated with learning. In 2014, a Swiss research team ran an experiment called ‘Boosting Vocabulary Learning by Verbal Cueing During Sleep‘, testing whether sleep enhances our ability to learn foreign languages. Subjects were given Dutch to German word pairs at 10 pm and listened to audio recordings of these pairings until 2 am. Half the group was allowed to sleep during the four-hour period. Researchers discovered that those who slept recalled significantly more than those who didn’t.
Sleep learning consolidates memory
The research says that the brain is able to recall and retain information during sleep – or perform memory consolidation. This happens during the deep sleep, or the slow waves period of our sleep. Deep sleep consolidates short-term memory into long-term memory and originates in the neocortex and makes a circuit with the hippocampus – the brain’s hard drive. Scientists believe that this circuit allows for newly-learned information to be repeated and memorised during the deep sleep cycle, typically in the first half of the night. It’s been shown that patients with insomnia, who fail to reach the deep sleep stage of sleep, suffer from impaired memory consolidation.
So how can you learn in your sleep?
Unfortunately, your teachers and parents were right. The best way to take advantage of this memory consolidation is to read and get enough good sleep to allow your brain to retain what has been read. Much of sleep learning is limited to making subconscious associations, such as pairing Dutch words to German words which have already been read while conscious.
Dr Susan Biali wrote 6 tips for the night before and the day of an exam, and touched upon some great advice for memory consolidation.
Sleep, particularly deep sleep, is critical for memory formation. New connections between brain cells form while you are sleeping, creating memories from your day. In order to reach the optimal number of cycles of memory-promoting deep sleep, aim to get a full eight hours before the big day. Make it a practice to get a good night’s rest after any intense day of learning and studying, as that will help your brain to retain as much information as possible.
Here is another quite informative piece on hypnopedia posted on Tuck which provides another angle to the discourse on sleep-learning.
Overscheduled people often look at sleep as wasted time. If we can multi-task while we’re awake, why not while asleep? That question leads many to consider whether they can learn something while sleeping. For decades businesses have sold recordings designed to play to during sleep in hopes of imparting knowledge, or at least a change in attitude or habits.
While the viability of these techniques is not out of the question, there has been surprisingly little scientific investigation of sleep learning.
Hypnopaedia is a fancy name for sleep learning. In the mid-20th Century serious researchers found positive results, and sleep-learning entered the popular consciousness. It played a part in the plots of the dystopian novels Brave New World and Clockwork Orange and it was associated with brainwashing.
A more positive use of sleep learning was encouraged by people who sold records designed to play while the listener was asleep. Commercially, things haven’t changed much although the recordings you find today are more likely to be digital.
Such hard evidence as we have suggests that these methods can be effective in getting people to remember rote facts. It can also promote simple stimulus-response conditioning. Israeli psychologists were able to make test subjects learn sniffing behavior in response to audible cues. Smell and hearing simple tones can be processes in primitive brain areas. This conditioning worked no matter at what stage of the sleep cycle it was given, although it appeared to be more effective when administered during REM.
Scientists at France’s Ecole Normale Supérieur recently showed sleeping people can process and respond to words spoken to them. Whether this processing counts as understanding is a philosophical question (mmost would say it isn’t). One researcher told the press he thought the processing bypassed the prefrontal cortex. When they woke up the subjects could not recall the words that were said to them, so this does not exactly meet the definition of sleep learning. Still, it is interesting.
Problem solving – Sleep on it
There is some evidence people can solve complex problems more readily if their deliberation is interrupted by sleep. Attacking a tough problem (mathematical, logical, or pragmatic day-to-day) during the day but unable to solve it, people often have better success the next day, after a night of sleep. It is not known which stage, if any, of sleep is the most productive for problem solving.
Further, there is evidence that complex designs, including those with emotional components, often go better after one or more nights of sleep. The familiar admonishment to “sleep on it” appears to be valid.
It’s not just mental learning. Physical training such as practicing music, dance and sports causes people to continue to improve for at least a day following a training session. That’s been known for a long time. Recent research confirms that sleep plays an important part in that continued learning.
Researchers at Northwesten University found that a 90-minute nap can help solidify learning. They tried teaching new things – both mental and physical – to people and then measured how well the new skills and knowledge stuck. Those who were told to sleep in the lab after the new experiences showed better mastery later on. Experiments showed people taught new piano melodies (while awake) could recall them better if the melodies were played while asleep. This isn’t sleep-learning as originally conceived, but it does employ sleep as part of the overall teaching regimen.