Is It Possible to Learn Through Audio While You Are Asleep?

The idea of learning as you sleep was once thought very unlikely, but there are several ways, both low- and hi-tech, to try to help you acquire new skills as you doze. While there is no method that will allow you to acquire a skill completely from scratch while you are unconscious, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use sleep to boost your memory. During the night, our brain continuously processes and consolidates our recollections from the day before, and there could be ways to enhance that process.


Given that we spend a third of our lives sleeping, it is not too surprising that sleep learning has long captured the imagination of artists and writers. In most incarnations, it involved the unconscious mind absorbing new information from a recording playing in the background.


Bad Science

In reality, this particular kind of sleep learning is almost certainly impossible. Although some early studies suggested that subjects could pick up some facts as they slept, the researchers couldn’t be sure that they hadn’t just awoken to listen to the recording.


To test those suspicions, scientists attached electrodes on the scalps of their subjects, allowing them to be sure that they only played the tapes once the subjects were dozing. As they had suspected, the subjects learned nothing once they had dropped off.


On the other hand, some more recent studies in which students were asked to listen to new vocabulary words in a foreign language, showed that you might be able to improve your language skills by listening in your sleep. In this study, half the group went to sleep while the words were played back. The other half stayed awake and listened to the words. The group that slept remembered more of the vocabulary words. It’s difficult to say whether these results are indicative of actual sleep learning, the ability of sleep to solidify recent learning, or just the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation, but it certainly is an interesting study to take into consideration.


In summary, the verdict is still out on whether sleep learning is possible. But regardless of the existing research, there actually are a few things you can try. Most of them depend on one thing: sound. Here are some of the skills you may be able to sharpen in your sleep.


1. Foreign words

One of the best reasons to try learning a language while you sleep is that you won’t be wasting time. Even if you learn nothing, you would have been sleeping regardless, so you won’t have wasted any valuable time that you could have used for something else.

Additionally, sleep learning might improve vocabulary retention. While the science isn’t there to support this yet, some studies do hint at the possibility.

Finally, exposure to your target language is beneficial. Even if you don’t learn anything in your sleep, you might wake up for a few minutes during the night and make the most of those moments by learning more vocabulary or improving your pronunciation.

In a recent experiment, scientists had their subject start learning a new language, beginning with some basic vocab. Then they asked them to go to sleep.

While they slept, the researchers played the sound of some of those basic words to the test group. The control group was exposed to no such sounds. Later on, when they were tested on the words, the group that had listened to them overnight was better able to identify and translate them.

To make sure the findings were tied to sleep and not just the result of people hearing the words, they had another group listen to the words while they did something else while awake, like walking. The walkers didn’t recall the words nearly as well as the sleepers.

2. Musical Skills

In another study, researchers taught a group of people to play guitar melodies. Afterwards, all the volunteers got to nap. When they woke up, they were all asked to play the tune again.

One group was played the same melody they’d just learned as they slept. The other group was not. The volunteers who’d been played the sound while they napped, even though they had no memory of it, played the melody far better than those who didn’t hear it as they snoozed.

3. Where You Put Something

In another study, researchers had healthy adults use a computer to place a virtual object in a particular location on the screen. When they picked a location and placed the object there, they heard a specific tune. Then, they did two experiments in which they had the participants nap for 1.5 hours.

During the first nap, participants dozed as usual, with no sounds playing. During the second nap, the tune that was played when they were placing the object was played again, though none of them reported hearing it.

Not surprisingly, after either nap, people’s memories faded. But their memories faded less when they’d been exposed, even sub or unconsciously, to the sound that had been played when they’d placed the item. Interestingly, their memories were sharper still when they’d been told the virtual object was of ‘high value’.

4. How to protect special memories

Scientists think our brains use a special tagging system to separate critical memories from less-important ones. Those the brain flags as ‘important’ get sent straight to our long-term memory, while less-important memories are washed away by new ones. But researchers think there may be a way to hack this system to our advantage.

In a recent study, they found that people who listened to a sound they’d linked with a memory, even an unimportant one, were better able to hold on to it.

First, they had a group of volunteers place icons on a computer screen in a specific location. The computer was programmed to play a specific sound when each object was placed. Placing a cat icon played a meowing noise; placing a bell icon prompted a ringing sound. Then, they let participants nap. While one group slept, the scientists played the sounds of some of the icons. The other group heard nothing.

People who listened to any of the sounds were better able to recall all of the objects: One sound appeared to help trigger multiple memories.



Our brain activity slows down in specific shifts overnight, with some of us spending more time in a special phase called slow-wave sleep (SWS) than others. But slow-wave sleep is also the phase of sleep when scientists believe some of our short-term memories are moved into long-term storage in our prefrontal cortex.


In some of these experiments, when researchers were able to study brain wave activity on the dozing volunteers, they noticed that those who were exposed to sound overnight, be it the foreign words played during the first study or the guitar tunes played as part of the second, also tended to spend more of their sleeping time in slow-wave sleep.


In other words, perhaps the more slow-wave sleep we get, the better – both for learning new skills and preserving important memories.


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