Sleep Learning: Can You Learn Anything While Sleeping? Science-Backed Facts

Sleep Learning: Can You Learn Anything While Sleeping?

Ready. Sleep. Learn?

If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to learn while sleeping, you’re in the right place.

Many years ago, the idea of sleep learning was once considered bogus. And perhaps for a good reason. Let me explain why.

What is sleep learning? A brief history

In 1932, for example, business tycoon Alois Benjamin Saliger got a patent. His patent was for the device, Psycho-Phone.

His device was marketed to help users wake up with more zest and confidence when they played word recording on the device while sleeping.

Some of the disks that came with this device were “Prosperity, Inspiration, Normal Weight, and Mating.


It would have people listen to affirmations like ‘I radiate love. I have a fascinating and attractive personality. I have a strong sex appeal.’ For Alois, it was not just about sleeping well but also waking stoked.

Alois fashioned his device, a Psycho-Phone, on the concept of hypnosis. It assumed that if you are sleeping, you’re most susceptible to suggestibility – a concept called “hypnopaedia’.

The bad news is over the years hypnopaedia failed to gain traction with the masses. The good news is, it became an important guide in shaping or changing behavior.

Is it possible to learn while sleeping?

Fast forward to 1965. A little over two decades after Alois’ phonograph-type machine, researchers investigated sleep learning.

Zavalova, and his colleagues published some shocking support for sleep learning, and our ability to learn while sleeping.

They found that hypnopedia, or sleep-learning, was possible. And that “the possibility of acquiring knowledge at the time of natural sleep does exist.

This groundbreaking study opened the floodgates of scientific research into sleep learning. It rekindled the idea that we can learn while sleeping.

How can we learn while sleeping?

Since then, several studies have shown our hippocampus is activated during a night of restful sleep. The hippocampus is partly responsible for memory, learning, and information retrieval.

At certain stages of our sleep cycle where we don’t dream, it’s possible to engage this part of the brain.

So in the rest of this article, let’s take a closer look at some of the findings from researchers.

1. Improve memory storage and traces

Züst and his colleagues published a new study in Currently Biology.

They reported that it’s possible to build verbal word associations during slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep is the sleep stage where you have little consciousness of your environment.

Forty-one German speakers participated in the study. The participants napped to the sound of an audio recording. The recording played pairs of made-up words (and their translations) in a language that didn’t exist.


The researchers wanted to understand if those words would leave some sort of trace in the participant’s memory.

Turns out, if participants heard the foreign words during the slow-wave sleep. At specific times, participants had a 10 percent chance to accurately classify foreign words.

The researchers’ approach enabled the participants’ brains to form memory traces or changes. This, in turn, helped participants store memory.

2. Improve learning associations

Another study in 2007 found that smells related to information learned in the past can be a cue to the sleeping brain.

In the study, neuroscientist, Björn Rasch and colleagues taught participants the locations of objects on a grid. As part of the process, they also exposed these participants’ odor of roses.

Afterward, the researchers exposed the same odor to the participants as they slept — at the slow-wave sleep stage.

Results showed participants were much better at remembering where the objects were located. The timing of the odor exposure had to be perfect for this to work.

It has to be during the learning process and the slow-wave sleep. Otherwise, the cue didn’t work.

3. Strengthen memory representation

Sadie Witkowski is a sleep and memory researcher at Northwestern University. She and her colleagues are confident that sound cues reactivate the memory of learning the object’s location from the previous task.

This process helps to strengthen its memory representation, thus leading to better recall. But Sadie and her team are not alone.

A study published in Nature Neuroscience supports this assertion. The researchers Daniel and Matthew from Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported that:

“During sleep, a task-related auditory cue biased reactivation events toward replaying the spatial memory associated with that cue.”

4. Improve learning conditioning

Learning condition is one of the basic forms of learning humans can achieve while sleeping. In another study researchers, Arzo and his colleagues investigated this phenomenon.


Their findings were published in Nature Neuroscience. It was titled “Humans can learn new information during sleep.” Here’s what’s exciting about that study:

Like Züst and his team, Arzi and his colleagues found that people can learn to associate sounds with odors during sleep.

The researchers played a tone during sleep. And at the same time, they unleashed a horrible smell of spoiled fish to participants as they slept.

When the participants woke up and heard the same tone played again, they readied themselves. How? They held their breath as they expected the foul smell again

5. Promotes behavior change

But it gets even better. Researchers in 2014 found that possible to change behavior while sleeping.

The study in the Journal of Neuroscience included 66 participants who wanted to stop smoking. Here’s what they found:

Participants smoked fewer cigarettes after spending a night exposed to the smell of cigarettes paired with rotten eggs or spoiled fish.

6. Improves memory reorganization

Studies have also shown that sleep also seems to reorganize memories. Turns out that the brain, at certain stages of sleep, replays memories in fast-forward.


In the process, the part of the brain responsible for storing memories is reactivated again as a network. This ultimately aids in teaching the brain to remember


You don’t have to ditch your Duolingo in the hopes that you will learn Spanish while you sleep.

Learning anything new takes effort and practice. Remember that for most of these studies, the cues happened while participants were awake.

So you’ll need to take that first step of providing the brain with that cue.

Whether it’s new information or specific details to existing information you already know. You can even consider reading before sleep as a way to cue your brain.

Here’s the good news: While you put in that effort, you can take advantage of the brain’s mechanism during sleep to speed up your learning and improve recall.