Many people like to read or listen to audiobooks while sleeping. The idea behind this is not to learn something new necessarily but to stimulate the brain into a more relaxed phase after a day’s hard work. But what will happen if we keep playing the audiobook while we sleep?
Will we remember everything like when we would during consciousness?
Will we learn anything new by the time we wake up?
That is a farfetched proposition scientifically, at least for now.
Can you learn anything while you sleep?
The truth- it is impossible to learn any new factual, logical, or semantic knowledge while asleep. There is no way you can memorize a book, learn a new language or skill by merely hearing an audiobook while you sleep. There needs to be a conscious effort in our waking hours to learn and memorize anything at all. However, it is possible to reinforce at least something in our brain during sleep if we deliberately and consciously listen or learn right before going to bed.
It is known that during the second stage of Non- REM sleep, whatever we have learned during our waking hours gets consolidated. It is generally advised that students take at least a short nap after studying so that the brain sinks in whatever they have learned.
It is a more effective way to memorize than to study without rest. It happens because a short nap is long enough to experience deep sleep or slow-wave but not REM sleep, which is when we dream.
Why is sleep learning not possible?
There is no substantial evidence or research to back the fact that we can train our brains to learn unconsciously. Sleep is vital for us because our body needs to rest, and that’s when our brain reorganizes the memories of the day. During certain sleep stages, neurons in the brain responsible for storing memories activate again as a network and replay memories in fast forward.
This replay action is crucial as it etches essential life experiences and learning into more permanent storage of the brain. All the while, the tangential memories which may not warrant much attention are erased to open more space for storage.
So, it’s not fruitful to learn something new during sleep, when the brain is already focused on other activities. It is better to learn something new and relevant to you just before bedtime so that your mind can rationalize and store it better.
Are auditory cues not helpful at all?
There is a term called “Hypnopedia,” which means attempting to convey information to a sleeping person while asleep. It’s typically done by playing a sound recording to them in their sleep. Although this term is often used and exaggerated in pop- culture, its real-life application and success are still debatable.
However, research on Targeted Memory Reactivation (TMR) has shown that newly acquired information with sounds can be later cued or played to strengthen memory. Only the sounds associated with previously learned material over some time can be processed into a tangible memory. Irrelevant sounds, irrespective of the subject, cannot be processed by our unconscious mind. At least it’s not proven with substantial research yet.
Research backing the effect
Alois Benjamin Saliger, in 1927, invented the Psycho- phone. It played out motivational messages to the sleepers. It supposedly was helping people absorb better ideas in their subconscious mind, and they woke up more confident, apparently. It was a widely accepted, popular, and intriguing idea during that time, no doubt.
But in 1956, Charles W. Simon and William H. Emmons revealed that learning during sleep was probably impossible and impractical in their electroencephalography studies. They reported that the stimulus material presented during the sleep was never recalled when the subject awoke. So basically, you cannot learn or remember anything new you have heard during sleep.
Research from 2012 from the Weizmann Institute of Science proposed the theory of classical conditioning. This further solidified the claims that humans can strengthen previously acquired memories during sleep but obtaining entirely new information is still not proven.
But remarkably, in a recent study in the journal Nature Communications, it was found that subjects were able to recognize intricate sound patterns that they heard during their sleep. A study published in the journal Current Biology showed scientists playing made-up words and their supposed meanings to sleeping participants.
It was a highly controlled and monitored experiment. The results showed that people woke up with better chances in the multichoice test when subjected to sound cueing than people who haven’t heard those words at all.
Is it harmful to listen to audiobooks while sleeping?
Practically, you shouldn’t make this a habit of using electronic sound devices in your ears every night. The earplugs, even the overhead earphones, can potentially cause ear infections and hearing issues. If you are not using wireless gadgets, then the chances of strangulating yourself with the cord while sleeping is also not improbable.
The most important thing-it will disrupt the functions of sleep. It will negatively affect the strengthening and pruning of previously acquired knowledge. Even losing the quality of sleep every night will lead to other significant health issues. So is it a fair trade to potentially learn a few words?
No, not at all.
Listening to audiobooks or learning during sleep is incomparable to learning consciously. The idea of incepting a whole new vocabulary, skill, language, or theory during sleep remains highly contentious. However, the human brain is still in its evolutionary stages. So the idea of learning during sleep should not be discarded altogether.
And as far as your love for audiobooks is concerned, you shouldn’t stop it anytime soon. At least not in your waking hours.