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Why can’t I learn in my sleep?

Why can’t I learn in my sleep? – This blog first appeared on the Epic website on March 22nd 2010

It sounds so tempting. Buy a set of audio tapes, turn them on at night and learn a new language in your sleep.

Whilst it was once believed to be possible, this is one learning technology that has been thoroughly discredited since the fifties. That hasn’t stopped it showing up in various novels and films and TV sitcoms though. In one episode, Homer Simpson learns vocabulary by accident when he orders a hypnosis tape, and it’s featured in an episode of ‘Red Dwarf’ and even in ‘Terry and June’!

However, it turns out that sleep is fundamentally connected with learning.

Studies have shown that sleep plays a role in consolidating learning. And different types of sleep seem to be linked to different type of learning. Declarative knowledge (like new vocabulary) is consolidated during slow-wave sleep, whereas procedural knowledge (learning new tasks) and emotional experiences seem to be consolidated during REM (dream) sleep.

But how do you know how much of each type of sleep you’re getting at night? Well, now there is a technology offering a way to find out.

Sleep Cycle is a Swedish-designed app that turns your iPhone into a sleep-tracking monitor. It works using a sensor in the iPhone that monitors movement. You put your iPhone on the corner of your mattress before you go to sleep, and based on your movement, Sleep Cycle creates a record of your sleep states which you can view as a graph when you wake up in the morning.

What can you do with your newfound knowledge? Well if you think you’re not getting enough REM or NREM deep sleep then you might want to consider how much caffeine or alcohol you’re drinking during the day. Studies have shown that even small amounts of either can impact how you sleep at night even if they don’t actually stop you sleeping.

So perhaps we finally do have a technology which will help us learn more thoroughly whilst asleep!