Can You Learn In Your Sleep?

Learning new things would be a lot easier if it weren’t for all the learning that’s required. But until science finally develops brain implants, some eggheads in Isreal may have found a learning shortcut. They exposed 55 sleeping participants to a variety of smells — some pleasant like shampoo, others terrible like rotting fish — and played a corresponding sound to accompany each odor.

The result was that the snoozers began to inhale more deeply when they heard tones associated with agreeable aromas, and to inhale more shallowly in response to tones associated with the gnarly smells. Even after the participants woke up, their responses remained the same; they would take a big whiff when they heard the good-smell sounds, and tiny ones when they heard the bad-smell sounds. The participants had no recollection of having been conditioned to sniff or not sniff — in other words, they’d learned without the pain of, well, learning.

Previous studies have shown that sounds and smells have a strong impact on memory, and that plays a powerful role in forming and solidifying memories acquired during waking hours. So what’s the big deal about this new research? It shows that it’s possible to learn waking behaviors while sleeping. Does that mean that you can learn alegra while napping? Not necessarily — but more research is in the works.