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Can You Learn A Language In Your Sleep?

Jul 2014

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As a valid scientific prospect, sleep-learning, or ‘hypnopaedia’, was widely discredited in the mid-fifties when researchers found it was ‘impractical and probably impossible’. Since then, sleep-learning has been relegated to the world of fiction. It’s been a useful plot device in works as varied as Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, to Friends and Dexter’s Labratory (in which our eponymous hero can only say ‘omelette du fromage’ after his French tape gets stuck on the phrase). This much-ridiculed theory, however, is having something of a renaissance.

omlette du

As reported in the peer-reviewed journal Cerebral Cortex, a team of psychologists from Zurich and Fribourg found that sleep-learning might not only be possible, but in some ways preferable to conscious learning.

Bjorn Rasch
Bjorn Rasch

The study, led by biopsychologist Bjorn Rasch, separated sixty German-speaking students into two groups. Both were asked to learn sixty Dutch words. Beginning at 10pm, one group was soon asked to go to sleep, while the others stayed awake.

Once it was confirmed that the first group were in rapid eye-movement (REM) sleep, the 60 words were played back to them. The ‘awake group’ also had the words played to them.

Both groups were then tested four hours later at 2am. The team found that the ‘sleeping group’ performed significantly better.

‘Sleep-learning’ is a misnomer. By the psychologists’ own admission, the research doesn’t show that language acquisition is possible during sleep, but rather that listening to language tapes in your sleep helps consolidate memories. This is supported by an earlier 2012 study by the Weizmann Institute of Science, which suggests that classical conditioning can occur during sleep and concludes that ‘during sleep, humans can strengthen previously acquired memories’.

sleep deprivationThe most obvious criticism of the study has been that the poor performance of the ‘awake group’ was because they were sleep-deprived. This is entirely valid. Researchers responded to this by pointing to EEG measurements of the sleeping group that showed activity in the part of the brain associated with processing languages, the parietal lobe, indicating that memory consolidation was taking place.

Others have pointed out potential dangers. Florence Cardinal of Canada’s National Sleep Foundation warns: ‘disturbing sleep patterns in this way requires the brain to remain alert to listen, preventing you from attaining the sort of deep sleep which is so important for the mind’. If, however, you are cramming for a language exam in the morning, and your choice is between a poor night’s sleep listening to language tapes and no sleep at all – there is a mounting body of evidence suggesting you should get some shut-eye.


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