Sleep

How it works, research and more

How it works, research and more

Learning while dozing sounds like a dream come true (pun intended), but it’s not that far-fetched.

Sleep plays an important role in learning, after all. You need the right amount of restful sleep for peak performance in memory, motivation, mood, and more.

Keep reading for details on the role sleep plays in learning.

Sleep is the secret sauce, so to speak, for locking in the new things you learn throughout the day and connecting newly formed memories to existing ones.

Although future research may help experts better understand the mechanisms at work behind the scenes, the existing evidence suggests that sleep may have a major impact on learning and Memory.

Sleep affects learning and memory in two main ways:

  • Sleep promotes memory consolidation, a key factor in understanding new information.
  • Sleep deprivation can negatively affect focus and concentration, making it difficult to learn new things.

The process of learning and memorizing new information takes place in three distinct stages:

  • acquisition, when you come across new information
  • consolidation, when processes in your brain help stabilize learned information
  • recall, when you access learned information after your brain has stored it

Acquisition and recall occur while you are awake. Memory consolidation, on the other hand, appears to occur during sleep, when the neural connections that help develop lasting memories become stronger.

Sleep deprivation can have many adverse effects, including mood changes, increased risk of high blood pressure, and changes in appetite and weight, to name a few. But lack of sleep can also affect your memory and concentration.

Without good sleep, attention and concentration tend to wander. When you can’t concentrate, it becomes more difficult to acquire new information. You may also have trouble recalling existing memories. Overworked neurons have a harder time coordinating information correctly, making it difficult for you to take in the information you learned earlier.

The odds of learning new things can drop quite sharply because sleep deprivation impacts the hippocampus, the part of the brain most responsible for creating new memories.

So, those sleepless nights spent cramming just before a big test? Maybe you should have slept better.

The different stages of sleep fall into two categories:

  • rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
  • non-REM sleep

Existing evidence suggests that non-REM sleep appears to play an important role in sleep learning.

  • A 2013 study suggested that the slow-wave sleep phase of non-REM sleep is essential for memory consolidation, which helps prepare the brain for learning the next day.
  • A study 2018 also pointed to sleep spindles – sudden increases in oscillatory brain activity detected on an electroencephalogram during the second phase of non-REM sleep – as key players in memory consolidation.

Experts are still trying to understand how the brain continues to learn during sleep.

In one small study 2018, 46 participants examined associations between words and images of objects or scenes before a nap. Then, 27 participants took a nap for an hour and a half, while the others stayed awake for 90 minutes.

The researchers repeated half of the words to the toppers while they slept in order to reactivate newly learned image memories. They showed them the words again after they woke up and asked them to remember the scene and the pictures of objects.

The results suggest that they could better remember images related to repeated words during their nap.

In a similar small study 2019, the researchers played word pairs, one true, one false, to participants who were napping during the slow-wave phase of sleep. The real word described something larger or smaller than a shoebox. When the participants woke up, the researchers asked them if the fake word described something bigger or smaller than a shoebox.

Their answers were more accurate than mere chance could explain, suggesting that people might in fact be able to encode new information during slow-wave sleep and remember it later.

The type of learning that occurs during sleep tends to involve pairing, conditioning, and associations. These abilities could potentially help you remember a piece of music or learn a new language faster.

In other words, things you learn during your waking hours may stick in your long-term memory just by sleeping.

Sharpen your language skills

The same small study 2019 above also explored whether sleeping people could make new associations between foreign words and their translations.

Researchers acted out sets of fake words and the fake meanings behind them for sleeping participants. For example, they came up with the word “guga” to mean elephant.

After waking up, the participants were asked to translate the false words on a multiple-choice test. Their ability to find the “correct” meaning was far better than pure chance.

These results suggest that it may be possible to become familiar with and recognize different aspects of language, such as meaning, accent or tone, during sleep.

Try: Listen to your favorite language learning tool, CD or spoken dialogue in the language you want to learn while you sleep.

Improve your musical performance

Trying to develop your abilities as a musician? Listening to music you want to learn while you sleep can help you remember it and play it better when you’re awake.

In one small study from 2012, 16 participants from various musical backgrounds learned to play two melodies by pressing keys aligned on a series of moving circles. (If you’ve ever played “Guitar Hero,” you get the idea.)

Participants then took a nap for 90 minutes, long enough to enter slow-wave sleep, while a melody played on a loop. After the nap period, participants were able to perform both songs better, but the researchers noted particular improvements in the song they unknowingly heard during their nap.

Try: Play the music track you want to play on loop while you sleep.

Break an unwanted habit, such as smoking

Another type of learning, conditioning, can also take place during sleep.

Results of another small study from 2012 suggested that people can learn to associate sounds with smells during sleep.

Researchers played a specific tone to sleeping participants by releasing the scent of shampoo or deodorant through a nasal mask, then a different tone by releasing the smell of carrion or rotting fish. Upon awakening, participants had a louder sniff response when they heard the tone associated with the pleasant smell.

A small study from 2014 explored whether aversive conditioning could help people quit smoking. People who smoked regularly spent a night exposed to an unpleasant smell through a nose mask: the smell of cigarettes combined with the smell of spoiled fish or rotten eggs.

The next day, and for several days after, they smoked fewer cigarettes.

Looking for tips on how to kick an unwanted habit? Start here.

Experts continue to study the role of sleep in learning and memory, but there’s no denying that sleep patterns can affect your brain and body in many ways. Not getting enough sleep can leave you feeling drained of energy, sure, but a sleep-deprived brain also has a harder time storing and remembering the things you’ve learned while awake.

Sleep tips like creating a sleep schedule, limiting time with devices, and taking time to relax before bed can help you sleep better so you can do your best sleep learning. Don’t expect to learn a whole new language overnight.


Breanna Mona is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. She has a master’s degree in media and journalism and writes about health, lifestyle and entertainment.