For many people, sneaking in a few hours of shut eye is an indulgence best saved for the weekend.
But rather than feeling guilty about lying in, research suggests that sleep may be the perfect time for learning.
From grasping a new language to quitting smoking, studies have shown that a range of skills can be improved from the comfort of your bed.
Rather than feeling guilty about lying in, research suggests that sleep may be the perfect time for learning. From grasping a new language to quitting smoking, a range of skills can be improved from the comfort of your bed (stock image)
There are five main stages of sleep.
Stages 1,2,3, and 4, are categorised as ‘non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep’, and the fifth stage, is REM sleep.
Stage 1 is the lightest stage of sleep. Brain activity is slightly slower than during wake time, and there is muscle tone present in the skeletal muscles. Breathing occurs at a regular rate.
Stage 2 usually follow Stage 1 and represents deeper sleep. During Stage 2 sleep, the sleeper is less able to be awakened.
Stage 3 and Stage 4 sleep are progressively deeper stages of sleep, and a sleeper would be difficult to wake at this point.
Stage 5, or REM sleep, is the stage of sleep associated with dreaming. Brain activity resembles wake time, but skeletal muscles are without movement. The breathing is more erratic and irregular. The heart rate often increases.
While it might sound implausible, research has shown that it is possible to improve your understanding of a new language while asleep.
A study in 2014, conducted at the universities of Zurich and Fribourg showed that German-speaking students were better at remembering the meaning of newly-learned Dutch words when they heard the words again their sleep.
Björn Rasch, who led the study, said: ‘Our method is easy to use in daily life and can be adopted by anyone.’
In their study, 60 participants were asked to learn pairs of Dutch and German words at 10pm.
Half the volunteers then went to bed, and were played back some of the Dutch words they had learnt, as they slept.
The other half stayed awake to listen to the Dutch words on playback.
In the morning, the participants were tested on what they had learned, and the results showed that the group who had been asleep remembered the German translations better than the group who had been awake.
The researchers believe that their results suggest that sleep helps memory, probably because the sleeping brain spontaneously activates previously learned subject matter.
But that isn’t to say that a certain amount of swotting is needed.
Thomas Schreiner, who co-led the study, said: ‘You can only successfully activate words that you have learned before you go to sleep.
‘Playing back words you don’t know while you’re asleep has no effect.’
A study in 2014, conducted at the universities of Zurich and Fribourg showed that German-speaking students were better at remembering the meaning of newly-learned Dutch words when they heard the words again their sleep (stock image)
Though everyone wants to sound amazing from the second they pick up a new instrument, learning can take months or even years of hard work.
But research suggests that learning a new instrument could partially be done in your sleep.
In 2012, researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois showed that external stimulation during sleep can help to develop a complex skill.
Participants learned how to play two artificially generated songs, before going to sleep.
While they slept, the participants were softly played back one of the songs they had practiced, but not the other.
Though everyone wants to sound amazing from the second they pick up a new instrument, learning can take months or even years of hard work. But research suggests that learning of a new instrument could partially be done in your sleep (stock image)
The results showed that participants made fewer errors when playing back the melody they had heard in their sleep, than the one they had not heard.
Paul Reber, co-author of the study, said: ‘Our research shows that memory is strengthened for something you’ve already learned.
HOW DOES SLEEP HELP MEMORY?
In 2015, a team of researchers from Brandeis University in Massachusetts investigated why sleep may help memory.
They found that the memory neurons that are responsible for converting short-term memories into long-term ones, work most effectively when a person is asleep.
The researchers believe that memory neurons actually put us to sleep.
The close working of our memory and sleep neurons means that our long-term memory relies heavily on us getting a good night’s rest.
‘Rather than learning something new in your sleep, we’re talking about enhancing an existing memory by re-activating information recently acquired.’
The researchers hope that the study will help them to learn more about the basic brain mechanisms that help preserve memories during sleep.
As well as consolidating memories, it appears that we can also learn new information while sleeping.
In 2012, researchers from the Academic College of Tel Aviv performed a study to test whether new knowledge could take root as you slumber.
Participants were played a tone as they slept, followed by an odour, which was either pleasant or unpleasant.
Next, a second tone was played, followed by an odour at the other end of the pleasantness scale.
Over the course of the night, the participants were also played just the tones, without the odours, but reacted in the same way – inhaling deeply in response to the tone associated with the pleasant odour, and taking shallow breaths in response to the tone associated with the unpleasant smell.
The next day, the now-awake pariticipants then heard the tones again, without the odours.
Although they had no conscious recollection of the associations, their breathing patterns told a different story, and again, they took deep breaths when exposed to the tone associated with the pleasant smell, and short breaths with the other.
In their paper, published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers, led by Dr Anat Arzi, wrote: ‘This acquired behaviour persisted throughout the night and into ensuing wake, without later awareness of the learning process.
‘Thus, humans learned new information during sleep.’
Building on the previous study, which showed that the use of smell is central to learning during sleep, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science found that people can be weaned off smoking in their sleep.
The researchers believe that smell training could be a promising direction for addiction research (stock image)
66 participants who wanted to quit smoking, slept in a special sleep lab where their sleep patterns could be closely monitored.
The amount of sleep you need varies based on your age:
0-3 months: 14-17
4-11 months: 12-15 hours
1-2 years: 11-14 hours
Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
Adults (26-64): Remains 7-9 hours
Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
Throughout the night, they were exposed to paired smells – cigarettes and a rotten egg odour, one right after the other.
Although they did not remember smelling the odours the next morning, the participants reported smoking an average of 30 per cent less over the course of the next week.
In contrast, participants who were exposed to the paired smells when awake did not smoke less afterwards.
The researchers believe that smell training could be a promising direction for addiction research.
The brain’s reward centre, which is involved in addictive behaviour, such as smoking, is closely connected to the regions that process smell.
Some of these regions not only remain active when we sleep, the information they absorb may even be enhanced in slumber.
Dr Arzi said: ‘What we have shown is that conditioning can take place during sleep, and this conditioning can lead to real behavioural changes.
‘Our sense of smell may be an entryway to our sleeping brain that may, in the future, help us to change addictive or harmful behavior.’
There are few situations that will make you cringe more than standing next to someone you’ve met several times and drawing a blank on their name.
But a study last year showed that a good night’s sleep can help you remember faces and names.
Researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston performed a controlled study of 14 participants.
Dr Jeanne Duffy, who led the study, said: ‘We know that many different kinds of memories are improved with sleep.
‘While a couple of studies have looked at how naps might affect our ability to learn new faces and names, no previous studies have looked at the impact of a full night of sleep in between learning and being tested.’
There are few situations that will make you cringe more than standing next to someone you’ve met several times and drawing a blank on their name. But a study last year showed that a good night’s sleep can help you remember faces and names (stock image)
In the study, participants were shown 20 photos of faces with corresponding names.
Twelve hours later, they were then shown the photos again, with either the correct or incorrect name, and were asked whether or not the name was correct, and to rate their confidence on a scale of one to nine.
Each participant completed the test twice – once with an interval of sleep in between and once with a period of regular, waking day activities in between.
The results showed that when given the opportunity to sleep, participants correctly matched 12 per cent more of the faces and names.
The findings suggest that sleep after learning a new activity may help improve memory.
Dr Duffy said: ‘Sleep is important for learning new information.
‘As people get older, they are more likely to develop sleep disruptions and sleep disorders, which may in turn cause memory issues.
‘By addressing issues with sleep, we may be able to affect people’s ability to learn things at all different ages.’