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 algebra while napping? Not necessarily — but more research is in the works.

Still, that got us thinking: what else can or can’t you do in yoru sleep?


Laughing while sleeping, also called hypnogely, is common. Of all the five stages of sleep (1,2,3, 4 and REM), a study performed on 10 subjects who regularly laughed while sleeping suggested that laughing occurs while dreaming in the REM stage. The subjects reported that the dreams were not even funny, but are typically odd and bizarre — like when a set of giant sparkly white teeth are chasing you asking where to find the world’s largest slice of pie. Although hypnogely is generally a normal and harmless physiological disruption in sleep patterns, it may be an indicator of a neurological disorder affecting the nervous system. The sense of entertainment is absent in these rare cases of abnormality. An example of this disorder Rett syndrome, a rare and severe neurological disorder caused by a genetic mutation.


Crying while sleeping may happen in cases of sleep terrors. During a case of sleep terror, the subject may scream, thrash around, or cry while still in a sleep-like state. Basically, it’s what we caught ourselves doing after playing 23 straight hours of Dr. Mario back in the early 90s. We’ll never forget the horror.

Adults are at risk of performing violent acts during this time and it’s difficult to awaken them without some difficulties. An episode may last up to 20 minutes where the subject either goes back to sleep or wake up in confusion.

This sleep disorder is most common in children under seven years old. It is uncommon for adults to develop sleep terrors and usually brought by a very emotional or traumatic event. It may also develop in adults with a history of anxiety, depression or bipolar disorders. This problem may go away before teen years among children, but if the problem persists in adults, it is better to consult a sleep specialist.


It is physiologically impossible for humans to cough and sneeze without waking up. The biological mechanism behind the cough reflex inhibition during sleep is poorly understood. However, if the motor neurons associated with the act of coughing is sufficiently stimulated while sleeping, it will disrupt your sleep to start a coughing episode. Coughing at night is uncommon among healthy people, but is present in people suffering from chronic bronchitis and emphysema.


It’s documented to occur, but uncommon. Yawning most frequently occurs right before sleeping or after waking up. The reason why people yawn is still not understood well, but the most recent findings indicate that it may be a thermoregulatory mechanism that provides cooling of the brain by directing blood flow to the facial muscles. This mechanism works like a radiator, offloading heat from the redirected blood.

A study done on two women who suffered from chronic episodes of excessive yawning shows that a significant temperature drop happens before a yawning episode. The women found that they could resolve or postpone a yawning episode by nasal breathing or applying cool cloths on their foreheads.