People learn while they sleep, study suggests

People learn while they sleep, study suggests
A study led by Michigan State University's Kimberly Fenn suggests people have an unconscious form of memory that allows them to learn while sleeping. Credit: Michigan State University

People may be learning while they're sleeping – an unconscious form of memory that is still not well understood, according to a study by Michigan State University researchers.

The findings are highlighted in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

"We speculate that we may be investigating a separate form of , distinct from traditional memory systems," said Kimberly Fenn, assistant professor of psychology and lead researcher on the project. "There is substantial evidence that during sleep, your brain is processing information without your awareness and this ability may contribute to memory in a waking state."

In the study of more than 250 people, Fenn and Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology, suggest people derive vastly different effects from this "sleep memory" ability, with some memories improving dramatically and others not at all. This ability is a new, previously undefined form of memory.

"You and I could go to bed at the same time and get the same amount of sleep," Fenn said, "but while your memory may increase substantially, there may be no change in mine." She added that most people showed improvement.

Fenn said she believes this potential separate memory ability is not being captured by traditional intelligence tests and aptitude tests such as the SAT and ACT.

"This is the first step to investigate whether or not this potential new memory construct is related to outcomes such as classroom learning," she said.

It also reinforces the need for a good night's sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people are sleeping less every year, with 63 percent of Americans saying their sleep needs are not being met during the week.

"Simply improving your could potentially improve your performance in the classroom," Fenn said.

Citation: People learn while they sleep, study suggests (2011, September 27) retrieved 16 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 27, 2011
This is not new at all.

I saw references to this in at least two different learning videos and books at least 13 years ago, where techniques to use subliminal learning and subconscious learning, including during sleep, were discussed. This included techniques such as listening to lectures and other teaching tapes or cds while sleeping, or just listening to music while sleeping.

This was only a brief "positive mention" for the most part, and didn't go into a lot of detail.

But the notion was that parts of your brain would memorize the information even if you weren't consciously aware of it, or perhaps solve problems even if you aren't consciously aware of them.


It seems that human knowledge has grown so vast that it's possible for "experts" to have absolutely no clue what is already known and TAUGHT publicly by others in the same fields over a decade earlier.

Sep 28, 2011
@Nanobanano, you are utterly incorrect. Try reading the article properly. The insight this study brings is the observation that an entirely new memory dynamic exists distinct from episodic/conscious and implicit/unconscious memory. Memory dynamics exist in many different forms in biological neural systems, and are mediated directly via serotonin, dopamine and indirectly via Cyclic-Amp. There's also a complex genetic dynamic mediated via kinease enzymes and CREB. While it was common knowledge that sleep aids learning, this study clearly shows that this form of sleep-based learning does not match established behavioural patterns for the acquisition of knowledge.

Oct 02, 2011
First of all, if I am ever back in class and fall asleep, I will cite this study in my defense.

Yes, this works fairly well. I make it a point to go to bed listening to a lecture.

I've actually played repetitive things on the stereo at night when my roommate goes to sleep in the living room, the next day he can't get it out of his head.

The interesting thing is that when he falls asleep listening to a loud movie, he can still hear me creeping through the room, I think maybe the background noise, the movie, becomes the " state " for the sleeping individual, and the mind becomes hyper-aware in sleep, perhaps due to an ancient survival mechanism, so any noise drastically differing from the ones comprising the norm set off alarms.

Kind of like sleeping to crickets and waking to a snapped branch.

Which made me wonder if there is a way to exploit this hyper aware sleep state, if indeed that's what it is.

hhmmm..going to try something

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more