It is the dream of many a college student — to doze off and learn course material while you sleep. While this may seem like an unrealistic pipe dream, new research has shown that this may actually be more realistic than one might think.
New research published in the journal Nature Communications shows that it is possible for someone to form auditory memories while sleeping. To come to this exciting conclusion, researchers played complex sound patterns while test subjects were sleeping to see if their memory could actually remember these patterns once awake. And it turned out they did — the sleepers were able to recognize with perfect accuracy the noises they heard in their sleep.
The study was relatively simple: There were 20 volunteers, and each was hooked up to a brain monitor while sleeping so the researchers could look at their brain patterns and whether or not they achieved REM sleep. White noise was played for the sleepers before they fell asleep, but it was interspersed with specific pings and other noises. When they were falling asleep, the snoozers were asked to raise their hand when they recognized an abnormality in the white noise. Once the participants fell into REM sleep, the researchers played the exact same white noise sound with the periodic noise pattern changes.
That’s when they found something interesting. The participants were able to best identify the sleep patterns when they were in REM sleep compared to any other level of consciousness. Even more, the sleepers were unable to identify the noise patterns when in the first stages of sleep.
These findings show that sleep and memory are deeply related. The researchers believe that this just shows people are able to learn audibly while sleeping, which can be exceptionally beneficial for many. But they are quick to point out that these findings are only for those who don’t have any pre-existing sleep disorders, such as the 18 million Americans who suffer from sleep apnea.
But, since the research sample was so small, the researchers are worried that this effect can perhaps have negative consequences such as not being able to remember crucial information learned during awake hours.
Thomas Andrillion, a researcher for the study, explains to Digital Trends:
“We are constantly forming new memories when we are awake, and there is a danger of packing the brain with memories that are costly to maintain and will clog the brain. Here we show that in the brain there are specific ways in which memories are suppressed to its advantage.”
The purposes of sleep are actually still quite a mystery to scientists, and only recently have we begun to understand more about this crucial bodily function. With these findings in mind, the relationship between sleep and the brain is coming into focus. If nothing else, it really goes to show how important a good night’s rest is!