Can you learn while you sleep?

Scientists would have totally scoffed at the question even a decade ago, but now they’re not so sure. Although Hypnopaedia or learning new material while sleeping have been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked, recent studies suggest that sleep in fact can play an important role in memory and retention of newly-learnt material.

The Science Behind it

Recent research in sleep-learning concentrates on a phase of sleep called the slow-wave sleep. It is the deepest phase of sleep where eye movement is minimal. This is the phase of sleep where memory gets processed in your brain. And it is during this stage of sleep you can strengthen memories with sensory cues or tags.

In 2007, neuroscientist Björn Rasch and his team at Lübeck University ran an experiment with two groups of German speakers learning Dutch. They gave them Dutch words to study, and then sent them to take a nap. They played a record of those words to one group of learners when they were in the slow-wave sleep stage. The other group was not played anything. The researchers found that the group that had Dutch words played during sleep remembered and learned those words quicker than the group that heard nothing.

How it Works

When you are exposed to sounds or smells during learning, they become sensory cues associated with the learning material. Your brain learns new things when you are awake, and refines them by pushing memories it deems unimportant into the unconscious mind during deep, slow-wave sleep. The pattern that EEG scans show at this stage is called ‘spindle’, and this pattern is associated with the memory consolidation process in both humans and songbirds which goes on for months.

Now, if these cues are brought near you during the process of memory consolidation, the things you learned becomes tagged with the memory of those sensory cues as well, thus becoming stronger. So it becomes harder for your brain to push those materials into oblivion. That is why you remember those things better when you wake up.

How It Can Benefit You

Scientists are still figuring out the exact frontiers of this new finding. Whether whole languages along with syntaxes can be learned this way, whether REM or shallow sleep has a role to play or not – these are questions that researchers are still grappling with.

What we do know sleep-learning can help us with are:

Vocabulary: You can definitely retain new words and even foreign language words this way. Record all the new words you learn in a day before going to sleep. Then set a timer to start playing in an hour or two; or by the time you’re sure to have fallen asleep. Or set to study a vocabulary list beside a rose plant. When you go to sleep, keep that plant beside your bed. Past researches have shown that smell can act as a tag the same way sound can.

Musical instruments: Works the same way as vocabulary training. Only, it might be more enjoyable going to sleep while listening to music than a vocabulary list!

Remembering where you put things: Do this little experiment. Put on a song while you clean and arrange your room. Then play that song quietly on loop while you go to sleep. Chances are, you’ll have an easier time finding that damn key next time round!


There are several videos and websites on the internet about ‘subliminal learning’ or ‘sleep learning’. Most of them base their processes on the now-debunked science of Hypnopaedia. They may work or not, but they definitely have no scientific basis. But there is now a growing amount of evidence that the process of sensory-tags during deep sleep actually helps retention, and this surely opens up new frontiers in the way we learn.

What’s the harm in trying out something new, we say!


Free 3-Part Brain Training by Jim Kwik:

How To Learn Faster & Remember Names
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Justin Eyler
Justin Eyler
1 year ago