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Learning A Language While Sleeping: Just A Dream?

What would you do if you had a few extra hours a day? Would you devote it to work or leisure? Would you consider sacrificing sleep for those extra hours? In this article, we look at our relationship to sleep and the notion of hypnopaedic learning - is it really possible to learn a foreign language while sleeping?

Mind over mattress: Is sleep standing in the way of your dreams?

The average human sleeps about eight hours a night for seventy-five years. That adds up to around two hundred and twenty-two thousand hours in a lifetime. What if we could use this time to do something useful, like learn a foreign language? I’m sure this thought has crossed your mind as you lie in bed, scanning your appointments for the following day and wondering how you’ll ever fit everything in — if only you had a few more hours in the day!

If this is the case, you’re in good company. Luminaries from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison to Jon Bon Jovi have poured scorn on the simple mammalian inactivity of sleep. Franklin famously asserted that, “there will be sleeping enough in the grave"; and Bon Jovi concurred chorally, “Until I’m 6 feet under, Baby I don’t need a bed, Gonna live while I’m alive, I’ll sleep when I’m dead." Edison was not so spiteful of sleep itself, but looked down on those who indulge: “The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake — they have only different degrees of doze through the twenty-four hours… We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunities."

Nowadays, this loss of vitality has been repackaged as a loss of productivity. We’re told of the hyper-productive CEOs of the world’s richest companies who are awake and alert hours ahead of the rest of humanity. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, gets up at 3:45 every day, answers his emails and works out before heading to the office for 6.

Early risers are apparently not only a few paw-widths’ ahead in the rat race — they’re also happier. In a 2012 study by the University of Toronto, participants answered questions regarding daily routines, emotional state and feelings of healthiness. Those who identified as morning people were more likely to report higher levels of positive emotion. The lead author, Renee Biss, attributed this discrepancy of positivity to social jet lag; the notion that people who stay up late tend to have sleep patterns which don’t fit well to our standard nine-to-five day. Indeed, the spritely, young, party-loving participants registered lower levels of happiness than older participants.

Before we restructure our lives and set the alarm clock to shriek an hour or two earlier, we should take a step back. All the above is very normative: measuring success against CEOs is fairly futile (there are only so many of them), and waking up at four in the morning to answer emails isn’t exactly everyone’s definition of success. And what exactly is the nature of the causal relationship between sleep and success? Are the early birds flying high because they get up before the rest of us, or are they merely the victims of schedules tightening as they scale the career ladder? Then there are the very real dangers of sleep deprivation, which has been linked to a host of afflictions ranging from a lower pain threshold to heart disease and diabetes. The pressures and paradigms of modern life have already taken their toll; Americans sleep over an hour less than sixty years ago, and approximately 36% are sleep-deprived — it’s a public health problem. Only 5% of us can get by on fewer than six hours sleep a night, which means you likely need more.

So where do we go from here? Modern lives are short on time and short on sleep, so what should we do to find the time for something as fulfilling and vital as learning a foreign language.

Can we learn while sleeping, aka hypnopaedically?

Hypnopaedic learning, or sleep-learning, is the acquisition of information while asleep. It’s difficult to imagine reconciling the activity of learning with the inactivity of sleep, but that hasn’t stopped a few scientists and many cunning marketeers from trying. The idea of switching on a tape player and closing your eyes to wake up fluent sounds as appealing as it does preposterous. That said, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the power of the unconscious: There are numerous reports of people awaking from comas with sudden and surprising expertise in a language they hitherto couldn’t speak; a twenty-two year old Australian who spent a week in a coma and awoke fluent in Mandarin, or a promising young English footballer who awoke speaking fluent French and believing he was Matthew McConaughey, or a Croatian girl that awoke suddenly able to speak German.

So what evidence exists for hypnopaedic learning? Not a lot, unfortunately. As Jennifer Ackerman notes in her splendid 2007 book Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, “Learning during sleep — that is actively acquiring new knowledge — is probably impossible, (and) attempts to teach slumbering adult subjects vocabulary of foreign languages or lists of items have failed miserably." More recent studies have, however, pointed to some advantages of revisiting previously learned information in your sleep. In 2012, researchers from Northwestern University taught participants two simple songs, one of which was then played back to the test subjects during a period of deep, slow-wave sleep. The test subjects consistently recalled the song they had heard while asleep more vividly than the other tune. In 2014, similar results were obtained in a study into the recall of recently learned vocabulary. Re-exposure to foreign words during non-REM sleep improved memory of these words, and the researchers also recognized the same patterns of theta wave oscillations normally associated with successful memory encoding while awake.

This is pretty interesting, but it’s still a long way away from the dream of turbo-charged, unconscious learning. Indeed, as Florence Cardinal of Canada’s National Sleep Foundation remarked, “Disturbing sleep patterns in this way requires the brain to remain alert to listen, preventing you from attaining the sort of sleep which is actually so important for the mind." Unless you want to record lists of vocabulary to play back to yourself every night, it sounds as if we should retreat to our waking hours to learn a language. All is not lost though — perhaps we can learn something from the high-flyers and the chirpy early birds among us.

Does it pay to be a creature of habit?

I would wager that the aforementioned CEOs and Biss’ older participants have at least one thing in common: they’re creatures of habit. While the creatures of the night hit snooze indiscriminately, the creatures of habit rise at exactly the same time and undertake the same first activities in the same sequence every day. Habits tend to multiply and solidify as we get older. They also tend to cluster at the beginning and end of the day. The first thing you do in the morning is probably the first thing you do every morning, whether it be reaching for your phone and checking emails, or leaping out of bed to brew a tea for the loved one lying next to you.

We rarely consider these habits. Did you consciously decide that you should check your phone immediately after waking up, or are you a victim of circumstance? Your alarm rings on your phone; you turn it off and, phone now in hand, you check your inbox for any recent arrivals. Our oft-repeated behavioral patterns are etched into our neural pathways. Perhaps the key to leading an even more vital and productive life is to create and adapt habits to condition yourself toward the achievement of your desired goal. Instead of checking mails that you’re unlikely to answer at 6:30 in the morning, you could shimmy through a few verb conjugations or learn how to describe your daily routine in a foreign language while tending to a morning tea or coffee — and all after a good night’s sleep, of course.

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