For many, sleep is seen as an inconvenience. But what if you could use your sleep hours to learn? This is an appealing concept for many but is there research to back it up? Let’s start by understanding the sleep cycles and the importance of each stage. We’ll then go on to find out how you can learn while you sleep.
Sleep is essential to the health of your brain, but what exactly happens to your mind as you sleep is truly an intricate work of art. Your brain does not enter a blackout phase just because you are getting some shut-eye.
While you may spend one-third of your life sleeping, your brain is quite active during the sleep state. Medline Plus notes numerous studies show that sleep helps to rid our minds of unnecessary toxins that accumulate in a day while we are awake.
WebMD reports that during a recommended seven to nine-hour sleep cycle, our brain transitions through varying stages of electrical activity, repeating these cycles in 90-minute increments. The sequence is broken down by Non-REM (rapid-eye-movement) stages and REM. Each of the non-REM stages lasts an estimated five to fifteen minutes each.
Quick Links to Info on this Page
- Non-REM Sleep N1 (Stage 1): The Light Stage of Sleep
- Non-REM Sleep N2 (Stage 2): Still Light but on the Edge of Something Deep
- Non-REM Sleep N3 (Stage 3): You are in Deep
- Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep: Sweet Dreams are Made of This…
- Can You Really Learn While You Sleep?
- Which Method is Best to Enable You to Learn While You Sleep?
- Is the Research Definitive That You Can Learn While You Sleep?
- Good Sleep Affects Your Focus and Concentration
- Selective Attention Impacts
- We Need Sleep to Boost Learning
- Powerful and Productive Decision-Making
- Creativity and Sleep
Non-REM Sleep N1 (Stage 1): The Light Stage of Sleep
The first stage of sleep, N1 is non-REM sleep in which we transition from being awake into a light sleep. Think of this phase of sleep as the lightest phase of your rest and the shortest. It is the time when you are most likely to be awakened by the slightest noise. Our bodies slowly enter a phase of relaxation. And the rate at which we breathe slows down, our heart rate decreases, and our muscles relax.
Non-REM Sleep N2 (Stage 2): Still Light but on the Edge of Something Deep
Non-REM sleep, N2 is where you spend the bulk of our time. It is here that your body temperature drops and your rapid eye movement ceases. You are just on the edge of deep sleep, but not quite there. Your eye movements also stop during this phase.
Non-REM Sleep N3 (Stage 3): You are in Deep
The third stage of Non-REM sleep is a deeper level of sleep. It is sometimes referred to as “slow wave sleep”. This stage takes place during the first half of the night. And it has lengthier duration periods. There is no eye movement. Your muscles are very relaxed, and the ability to arouse you from sleep is markedly difficult.
If the arouser is successful in waking you up, you may find that you feel confusion or bewilderment for several minutes after stirring. N3 is the stage at which children experience bedwetting and night terrors (National Sleep Foundation).
Your heart rate, breathing, and brain activity drop off considerably at this stage. During this time, your body revitalizes its immune system while simultaneously repairing tissue, bones, and muscles. Unfortunately, as we age, the time we spend in this stage of sleep begins to fall.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep: Sweet Dreams are Made of This…
Twenty to twenty-five percent of your time is spent in REM sleep, which is responsible for producing your dreams. As you age, this stage of sleep also decreases in duration. Nonetheless, it usually takes place during the first 90 minutes after we fall asleep.
Your eyes are rapidly moving from side to side. And our brainwave activity is so active that it almost resembles your brain wave activity during a waking state. Your breathing may increase along with your blood pressure and heart rate. The limbs of your body, however, are not at all as they are during your wakeful period. Instead, we are temporarily immobile which is a vital asset.
The power of your dreams can be quite intense. This paralyzed state keeps us from acting out and harming ourselves or others. In fact, this is the phase at which many adults experience sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a condition in which the person dreaming awakens before the REM cycle is complete. And their body is still in a paralyzed state. It is a frightening experience. For many they are initially unable to understand why they are awake but unable to move.
The REM phase allows us to consolidate our memories, allows for learning and enables us to regulate our mood efficiently. The body needs this cycle of sleep much as it needs the others and demands that we allow for the REM cycle. Think of a time in which someone or something kept waking you and you had a series of back-to-back dreams. These events were your body’s effort to participate in the REM cycle.
As you can see, the anatomy of the mind during the sleep cycle not only regulates the rate at which it restores itself but also clears out old toxins. It creates and stores new memories, promotes learning and replenishes itself for a new day.
The mind, through sleep, also controls other areas of the body including the rate at which you breathe. It also controls the pace at which your heart beats and ability to move muscles. Your ability to attain adequate sleep is vital to our mind’s navigation through each of the stages and repetitive cycles.
Can You Really Learn While You Sleep?
Can you learn while you sleep? Absolutely, but it depends on who you ask and your definition of learning! Still, it’s important to note that because you are asleep, it does not mean your mind is taking a break.
Limited evidence exists on whether you can acquire new skills from scratch. Yet, there is plenty of research about the quality of sleep you manage to achieve and the length or degree to which you can learn new things. Studies demonstrate that a lot of your memories and especially your ability to grasp complex concepts learned during the day happen as you are sleeping.
The key to this process occurring is ensuring that you make every effort to achieve consistent levels of quality sleep.
What about all night cramming?
Sure, you are probably scratching your head wondering how it is possible to create more concrete memories with new information. This is especially the case when when you know friends who used to pull all-nighters and ace exams. But we want to know how you can learn while you sleep.
While your friends may have managed to chunk a fair amount of information into their minds and regurgitate it for the test, one cannot help but question how much of that information stayed with them after the exam?
Getting adequate sleep and most importantly, spending time in the light Non-REM and REM cycles allow you to consolidate and store memories that you might later need to use for a situation or event.
Your ability to learn is not limited to storing memories. It goes far deeper than memory storage. It has everything to do with sound. Medical News Today reports that sleep allows for you to refine memories while asleep, reactivate memories while asleep and later apply them correctly. The brain can create fresh memories while you sleep through soundly.
Which Method is Best to Enable You to Learn While You Sleep?
In the Journal of Nature Communications, a study revealed that participants who heard sounds played for them while asleep in the REM cycle were able to recognize the same sound patterns when awake. Sound is the easiest and most popular way to learn while you sleep.
Another study demonstrates that you may be able to learn a new language in your sleep if you hear the same words repeatedly played while you sleep. However, for this to be successful, you must be careful not to disturb the brain and allow it to rest.
The key to learning, however, is repetition. For example, the same study showed that when researchers tried to introduce a new word in rapid succession with the first, the retention level dropped off slightly. The good news is that these individuals did not forget what they learned, even when provided with erroneous information which becomes critical for information retention.
This little fact is particularly crucial if you worry that something of great importance might easily be wiped away with repetitive misinformation. Our mind’s capacity to decipher between right and wrong is not affected thanks to the inner workings of problem-solving and managing complex information.
Is the Research Definitive That You Can Learn While You Sleep?
Keep in mind that while these studies would have us believe that learning is possible with sound while we sleep, there are skeptics who challenge their validity. First, many people question whether the participant did awaken during the sounds and learn during that period while listening to the recording.
Though researchers would probably prefer to believe their subjects remained asleep during this process, there is always a chance that they did in fact awaken. If this is indeed true, it could squash the theory that learning through sound is a possibility.
While skeptics and researchers can debate the impact of sound and learning, most can agree that the process of learning that we associate with memory creation, synthesis and storage does exist and relies heavily on the quality of sleep we achieve nightly.
Whether you take to heart or not, that you can learn while you sleep, it is still important that you give priority to sleep. As we learn more about sleep from research we are discovering that sleep, which is so undervalued in our society, can do more than just while away the night time hours. Value your sleep and you’ll reap the benefits.
Good Sleep Affects Your Focus and Concentration
Don’t just focus on how to learn while you sleep. Instead, use sleep to help you retain what you learned while you were awake.
If you don’t currently give priority to sleep you need to re-think and re-adjust your priorities. How well you sleep affects your focus and concentration. Sleep is a necessary must-have because it refreshes our mind, body, and spirit. Still, millions of Americans make a habit of not getting adequate levels of sleep each night.
If you think that you can skate by on less than six hours of sleep per night for an extended period and it not affect your thinking, you are sadly mistaken. Poor sleep habits can wreak havoc on your cognitive abilities and mental wellness. Think of your mind as a well-oiled machine and sleep as the fuel it needs to function at optimal levels. You may want to see how you can learn while you sleep but being deprived of sleep will affect your concentration for learning.
Without adequate sleep, we find ourselves moving through a haze of confusion, poor judgment, and an inability to reason when faced with complex thought.
Harvard Medicine says our learning takes place in three core functions of acquisition, consolidation, and recall.
During acquisition, our brains take in new information. The consolidation phase entails a series of processes in which our memories begin to stabilize. Later, we can access information through recall after storing it away.
These three functions may seem a bit high level or scientific, but it gives testimony to the importance of sleep. Without adequate periods of rest, we will not be able to successfully navigate each of these functions necessary for concentration and focus.
Selective Attention Impacts
Also, poor sleep can impact our ability to filter multiple pieces of information. Selective attention is the ability to only give attention to specific sets of data where things may be happening at the same time. Imagine going to your favorite restaurant with a friend.
You can hear other patrons placing their orders, engaging in conversation and your hostess is providing you with the specials of the day. Your ability to listen and focus on that list of specials for the day is an example of selective attention. Studies show that when we miss a single night of sleep, our ability to operate at this level diminishes (Live Science).
We Need Sleep to Boost Learning
While you may want to try and learn while you sleep, it is important to rate sleep highly for all learning purposes. Sleep is critical to our ability to learn new things and building new skills or mastery of new tasks. Without it, our ability to focus is lost, and memory capacity is severely limited, which in turns makes it very difficult to learn anything new.
This aspect can prove particularly crucial for children and teens’ performance in school. Sleep enables us to function at optimal levels of clarity and with focus. Our response time to questions or stimuli increases drastically with proper sleep habits.
Also, we experience an improvement in memory and recall which is a vital component of learning new things. While the idea of being able to learn while you sleep is appealing we also need to focus on using sleep to boost the learning we do while we’re awake.
Powerful and Productive Decision-Making
Good sleep allows us to make good decisions. According to the National Sleep Foundation, good sleep empowers our “executive function” center, a set of abilities that enable us to do well in a variety of settings including work, school, and our personal life. When you don’t get enough sleep it’s harder to focus on tasks and more difficult to solve problems.
Creativity and Sleep
How well you sleep influences your capacity to be creative. Sure, you may find that you have bright ideas in the middle of the night but write them down and go back to sleep as soon as possible. Studies show that sleep is associated with giving us the necessary tools for pioneering knowledge, skills, and abilities.
As you can see, proper sleep habits are critical to the way you process and respond to information. Make every effort to achieve a minimum of seven to a maximum of nine hours of sleep per night. Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. Positive sleep habits will aid in improving your overall cognitive and physical performance. And if you want to try to learn while you sleep then that’s up to you, but first make sure you get the sleep you need every night.
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