If you thought you couldn’t be productive in your sleep, you might want to rethink that one.
A study conducted by Flavio Schmidig investigated the hypothesis of learning new words to see if participants were capable of learning new terms while asleep. Their efforts were focused on seeing if those words could eventually be encoded and stored in the brain.
So did this study demonstrate that people can learn new words in their sleep? Let’s dive into this study to find out.
In the study, Schmidig and other researchers wanted to examine 30 German speakers as they slept in a sleep lab. In the first part of the study, the researchers examined the participants after 2 hours of deep sleep to observe brain activity. Schmidig said that brain activity in deep sleep goes through a series of peaks and troughs that last two hours.
With this information from other studies, the team was able to create an algorithm tool to target word pairs to slow wave peaks or troughs while the participants were sleeping. A peak during sleep refers to moments of heightened brain activity or arousal during sleep, such as REM sleep or vivid dreams. Troughs are periods of reduced brain activity or relative calmness during sleep. These can occur during NREM sleep stages, slower brain waves and deeper states of sleep.
In the next part of the study, the other half of participants were played audio clips during moments in their sleep where it was recorded that the brain was more likely to absorb and process new information. The other half of the participants listened to the audio clips during the trough moments in their sleep.
To stimulate both ears to German words, Schmidig played 27 German words with meanings relating to three categories — animals, tools, and places — in the participants’ left ears. On the right side, he played made-up words in the participants ears to remove any prior knowledge they might have of a previous language that is not German.
For example, the participants would hear the word “shuttle” in one ear and hear a made-up word in the other.
After a 12-hour interval, once the participants had regained consciousness, they were presented with the gibberish words both in written and spoken form. Next, the participants had to place each of the made-up words they heard and place it into those three categories mentioned prior.
The outcome of this study was a surprising one as the participants who listened to the words during their deep sleep answered incorrectly while the participants who listened to the words during the troughs of their deep sleep answered correctly.
So, this study helps indicate you might not achieve your goal of learning a completely new language while you are asleep. However, sleep expert and co-founder of Rise Science, Jeff Kahn, said that, while awake, your brain can still process associations with previously encountered information.
“Studies show you can reinforce previously learned information during sleep, such as vocabulary from a foreign language,” Kahn said. “However, this doesn’t mean you can learn a language from scratch while sleeping.”
Kahn said that when we are asleep, our brain goes through different stages of sleep such as the REM and NREM stage. These stages are crucial for how we retain information since our brain is capable of strengthening and consolidating memories during this point of our sleep.
“This process involves strengthening the neural connections that form our memories,” Kahn said. “When it comes to language learning, this might involve reinforcing the neural connections associated with new vocabulary words, their meanings, and how they’re used in context.”
Before you think that you can immediately start speaking fluently in a different language after hearing translations of words while asleep, this is not the case. Kahn said there is no strong scientific evidence that you can learn a completely new language while asleep. So, if speaking a new language is a realistic goal for you, you should keep learning the language when you’re awake. But if you’re curious whether or not you could relearn parts of a second language you learned back in high school, it might be worth a shot, if only for the fun factor!
Kahn, Jeff. Personal Interview. June 13, 2023