I’m only sleeping: How we can learn more in our sleep than we might realise

Researchers monitored sleep patterns overnight

Humans can learn entirely new information during sleep, new findings from University of Sussex researchers has revealed.

In a new study, carried out in collaboration with researchers at Cambridge University, researchers were able to show that the sleeping brain is able to learn and make associations between sensory stimuli.

The study involved playing a sound and then releasing a smell while participants were asleep. When the same sound was played when they were awake, the people remembered the smell.

The researchers believe the new findings show that not only we can learn while asleep, but provides evidence of the specific ways in which the brain could be supporting this phenomenon. Researchers believe this is important since it can direct future studies into more specific areas such as how it is possible to modulate learning while asleep. This could also help in the analysis of the role of sleeping on learning.

Emiliano Merlo, Co-Author of the study and Lecturer in Psychology, said:

“What is fascinating about the work is that we discovered that the brain is capable of forming associations between related events while asleep, that will then modify the behaviour of the learner while awake and in presence of such events.

“The main finding is that we revealed different brain activity patterns associated with early and late learning experience.

“In particular, we observed that in sleeping subjects, their sniffing response to sounds associated with good or bad smells changed, evidencing they were learning to predict the upcoming smell and trying to avoid it!

“Also, as subjects progressed in the task and displayed better learning, we detected specific alterations in brain activity.

“These changes in brain activity may be an indication of how and when the sleeping brain is learning new information during sleep.”

“The analysis of brain activity while the learning was taking place was the fundamental contribution of this study. It is like opening a window to the brain and starting to get a glimpse of how the brain must be able to do this.”

“This is important since it can direct future studies into more specific areas to fully understand how learning takes place whilst sleeping”.

For the study, participants were attached to a series of electrodes on their scalp, and asked to rest for their night sleep in a dedicated room in a research facility. Specially trained researchers then monitored their sleep patterns overnight and delivered a training programme where specific sounds signalled an upcoming good or bad smell, all delivered through a nasal mask.

While asleep, researchers were then able to monitor the participants sniffing response to the sounds, observing that they withhold their sniffing when the sound signalling rotten fish smell was presented.


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By: Tom Walters
Last updated: Thursday, 19 December 2019

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