Is sleep learning really possible?

Sleep learning – a fact, or just a nonsensical fad?

Woman sleeping peacefully - maybe she's sleep learning ...

Sleep learning … an enticing idea. But is it scientific fact or merely fantasy?

Sleep learning has been offered to us for years as a proven fact, but does it really work? Over the years various companies have tried to convince us that they have the secret to it, and to how it can benefit us. They want to sell us sleep learning recordings that we can listen to as we drift off to sleep, and in fact continue to listen during the hours of the night as the recordings are kept on automatic replay.

Can this really work? Is it really possible to absorb information during our hours of slumber? Is there any scientific evidence that the memory works during sleep, and consolidates what we’ve learned, or that we can absorb new information? We may be a step closer to the answer.

Psychology professor heads research study

Researchers at Michigan State University recently ran a study (reported in ScienceDaily, Sept. 27, 2011) which seems to back up this idea. Their findings were highlighted in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Kimberly Fenn, assistant professor of psychology and the researcher leading the project speculates that “… we may be investigating a separate form of memory, distinct from traditional memory systems,” and goes on to say “There is substantial evidence that during sleep, your brain is processing information without your awareness and this ability may contribute to memory in a waking state”.

Sleep memory affects us to various degrees

It was a wide-ranging study, involving more than 250 people, and led Fenn and Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology to propose that people benefit from this ‘sleep memory’ to widely differing extents. Some subject benefitted dramatically, while others saw no benefit at all. They go on to suggest that this is actually a new and previously undefined form of memory.

Fenn said that most people showed at least some memory improvement, and explained that “You and I could go to bed at the same time and get the same amount of sleep, but while your memory may increase substantially, there may be no change in mine.”

She also said that it is her belief that this ‘new’ kind of memory ability is not currently being addressed by traditional IQ tests or aptitude tests. Clearly, the whole area is still virtually undiscovered. She adds, “This is the first step to investigate whether or not this potential new memory construct is related to outcomes such as classroom learning”.

Get the ‘right’ amount of sleep for you

What it certainly does underline is the need to pay attention to getting a reasonable amount of sleep. The old idea that we need a regular eight hours a night is discredited; some people do well on substantially less, while others need nine or ten hours to feel properly rested and refreshed, regardless of whether they’ve been sleep learning or not.

What you really need is the ‘right’ amount of sleep – i.e. the amount that doesn’t leave you suffering sleep derivation, and liable to suffer the consequences of sleep deprivation. What you don’t want to do is cheat yourself of whatever you feel is your real sleep requirement. Do that and you might be harming your chances of making the most of your study time!

If part of your learning and memory consolidation occurs during sleep, the last thing you want to do is skimp on it. Lack of sleep could have a more harmful effect than just leaving you feeling a bit ‘fuzzy’ the next morning – it could potentially be wasting all you hard work studying during the previous day.

As Kimberley Fenn says, “Simply improving your sleep could potentially improve your performance in the classroom”.


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