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Description: Decades ago, when I was in grade 7, we had grade-wide exams in a number of subjects. I was particular keen to do well on the science exam. One of the topic areas on the exam was the periodic table and I set out to memorize the names, symbols and atomic numbers of all of the elements in the table. I had no idea whether it would help but I had received a small reel to reel tape recorder as a Christmas gift and so I read the name, symbol and atomic number of all of the tabled elements into the recorder and played them over and over in the background while doing things like homework or watching television. I even persuaded my parents to come into my room each night for 2 weeks after I had fallen asleep (I preset the volume fairly low) and turn on the tape to play while I was asleep. So how did I do with the periodic table questions on the exam? Great! So, did my “sleep learning” experiment work? Well, think about it for a minute. What else might you like to know or what else might you have added into my case-study “experiment” to clarify the results? It might help to know that I did very well on ALL of the questions on the exam, not just on the periodic table questions. It also took me quite a few ties to get the tape-recording set and working well (repetition). Also, science was my best class (both in terms of my interest and my resulting grades) that year. And, no, I had no idea if I even “heard” the recordings playing while I slept. Finally, I only got the second highest mark on the science exam in my school. A classmate beat me by one mark (that still smarts) and he did not have a tape recorder and did not try any sleep learning. Now before you write my 7th grade self off as a science obsessive think for a minute about how you might design a “sleep learning” study that would effectively address the question of whether sleep learning is possibly a thing or not. Once you have your design thoughts in order read the article linked below to see how real (though perhaps also science obsessed) adult researchers designed their study and what they found.

Source: Remembering Faces and Names can be improved during sleep, ScienceDirect.

Date: January 12, 2022

Image by bongbabyhousevn from Pixabay

Article Link:

So, was I onto something in Grade 7? Well, I did not have access to EEG equipment to measure sleep level and I was not systematic in my recorded stimulus materials. As well, I was using the entire periodic table and it was played in the same order each night (as well as at other times during the day when I was awake). The researchers in the linked article study used smaller lists (names of people in two classes) and they varied during sleep exposure to only some names in one of the two classes while also noting the sleep stage of each participant while the names were being recited to them. Participants’ pre-sleep work on the names they were to try and recall later was controlled so all participants had the same pre-sleep experience. The results of a 50% increase in recall for names heard while sleeping, providing that they were in deep stage sleep, are quite impressive. However, before you start making your own sleep learning recordings for your current courses or other memory tasks not that the memory task in the study were limited in scope and were focused upon rote memorization, meaning that the participants were asked to memorize the names of people in a whole class. Pictures WERE provided as paired associate memory clues, but the memory task did not involve any understanding, just memory. So, while this is intriguing, I think it is fair to say that more research is needed before we go out and market sleep learning systems!

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Can you think of any life incidents you have experienced that suggest positive support for sleep learning?
  2. What are the details of the design of the study on sleep learning described in the linked article?
  3. What sorts of additional research would we need to do before we could (ethically start designing and marketing a student sleep learning system?

References (Read Further):

Whitmore, N. W., Bassard, A. M., & Paller, K. A. (2021). Targeted memory reactivation of face-name learning depends on ample and undisturbed slow-wave sleep. bioRxiv. Link

Bassard, A. M., & Paller, K. A. (2021). Reactivating Memories from a Mathematical Task over a Period of Sleep. bioRxiv. Link

Witkowski, S., Noh, S., Lee, V., Grimaldi, D., Preston, A. R., & Paller, K. A. (2021). Does memory reactivation during sleep support generalization at the cost of memory specifics?. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 182, 107442. Link

Stickgold, R., Hobson, J. A., Fosse, R., & Fosse, M. (2001). Sleep, learning, and dreams: off-line memory reprocessing. Science, 294(5544), 1052-1057. Link

Paller, K. A., & Oudiette, D. (2018). Sleep learning gets real. Scientific American, 319(5). Link

Maquet, P. (2001). The role of sleep in learning and memory. science, 294(5544), 1048-1052. Link

Tamaki, M., Wang, Z., Barnes-Diana, T., Guo, D., Berard, A. V., Walsh, E., … & Sasaki, Y. (2020). Complementary contributions of non-REM and REM sleep to visual learning. Nature neuroscience, 23(9), 1150-1156. Link

Siegel, J. M. (2001). The REM sleep-memory consolidation hypothesis. Science, 294(5544), 1058-1063. Link

Tarullo, A. R., Balsam, P. D., & Fifer, W. P. (2011). Sleep and infant learning. Infant and child development, 20(1), 35-46. Link