Back when I was young, sleep learning was a popular idea. The idea was that a tape would play while you were asleep, and learning would seep into your brain effortlessly. It was particularly advocated for language learning. Subsequent research, unfortunately, rejected the idea, and gradually it has faded (although not completely). Now a new study may presage a come-back.
In the study, 16 young adults (mean age 21) learned how to ‘play’ two artificially-generated tunes by pressing four keys in time with repeating 12-item sequences of moving circles — the idea being to mimic the sort of sensorimotor integration that occurs when musicians learn to play music. They then took a 90-minute nap. During slow-wave sleep, one of the tunes was repeatedly played to them (20 times over four minutes). After the nap, participants were tested on their ability to play the tunes.
A separate group of 16 students experienced the same events, but without the playing of the tune during sleep. A third group stayed awake, during which 90-minute period they played a demanding working memory task. White noise was played in the background, and the melody was covertly embedded into it.
Consistent with the idea that sleep is particularly helpful for sensorimotor integration, and that reinstating information during sleep produces reactivation of those memories, the sequence ‘practiced’ during slow-wave sleep was remembered better than the unpracticed one. Moreover, the amount of improvement was positively correlated with the proportion of time spent in slow-wave sleep.
Among those who didn’t hear any sounds during sleep, improvement likewise correlated with the proportion of time spent in slow-wave sleep. The level of improvement for this group was intermediate to that of the practiced and unpracticed tunes in the sleep-learning group.
The findings add to growing evidence of the role of slow-wave sleep in memory consolidation. Whether the benefits for this very specific skill extend to other domains (such as language learning) remains to be seen.
However, another recent study carried out a similar procedure with object-location associations. Fifty everyday objects were associated with particular locations on a computer screen, and presented at the same time with characteristic sounds (e.g., a cat with a meow and a kettle with a whistle). The associations were learned to criterion, before participants slept for 2 hours in a MR scanner. During slow-wave sleep, auditory cues related to half the learned associations were played, as well as ‘control’ sounds that had not been played previously. Participants were tested after a short break and a shower.
A difference in brain activity was found for associated sounds and control sounds — associated sounds produced increased activation in the right parahippocampal cortex — demonstrating that even in deep sleep some sort of differential processing was going on. This region overlapped with the area involved in retrieval of the associations during the earlier, end-of-training test. Moreover, when the associated sounds were played during sleep, parahippocampal connectivity with the visual-processing regions increased.
All of this suggests that, indeed, memories are being reactivated during slow-wave sleep.
Additionally, brain activity in certain regions at the time of reactivation (mediotemporal lobe, thalamus, and cerebellum) was associated with better performance on the delayed test. That is, those who had greater activity in these regions when the associated sounds were played during slow-wave sleep remembered the associations best.
The researchers suggest that successful reactivation of memories depends on responses in the thalamus, which if activated feeds forward into the mediotemporal lobe, reinstating the memories and starting the consolidation process. The role of the cerebellum may have to do with the procedural skill component.
The findings are consistent with other research.
All of this is very exciting, but of course this is not a strategy for learning without effort! You still have to do your conscious, attentive learning. But these findings suggest that we can increase our chances of consolidating the material by replaying it during sleep. Of course, there are two practical problems with this: the material needs an auditory component, and you somehow have to replay it at the right time in your sleep cycle.
 . Cued memory reactivation during sleep influences skill learning. Nature Neuroscience [Internet]. 2012 . Available from: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.3152.html
 . Memory stabilization with targeted reactivation during human slow-wave sleep. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2012 ;109(26):10575 - 10580. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/26/10575