We’re often told how sleep is the conduit by which we sort out the issues of the day. Very often we’ll dream about events that have affected us, made us happy, upset or stressed. It’s our brain’s way of trying to deal with what life throws at us. It’s not always successful; after all, the human body is a machine that’s thousands of years old and trying to compete in a twenty first century world. However, an exciting new study has recently discovered that the human body is actually capable of learning whilst snoozing, something that was previously thought of as unfeasible.
The sleep study was carried out by Anat Arzi who is a scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. She employed a well established technique called Classical Conditioning to test what we are aware of when we sleep. It suggests that one particular stimulus, when paired with another will provide a thought association that makes the human being respond accordingly.
This is an idea similar to Pavlov’s experiments, in which he presented a dog with two different stimuli (in this case the ringing of a bell, which was followed by food). Every time the dog heard a bell ring, it automatically salivated at the thought of being presented with something good to eat.
A 2009 Study
Arzi’s study follows on from a 2009 trial, details of which can be accessed here, where Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, working in Cambridgeshire, England, found that patients who were diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state and completely unaware or able to express knowledge of their surroundings or the people who were nearby, could respond to the same sort of “sleep stimulus”, when short bursts of air were puffed onto their eyelids and they were able to respond by moving them. Azri decided to expand on this theory and test it out on healthy patients during the course of a night’s sleep.
In Arzi’s experiment, a sample group of fifty five healthy participants with no previous health problems were exposed to a variety of different odours as they slept. Some were pleasant, such as clean smelling deodorants, shampoos or perfumes, whilst others were typically unpleasant, like the odour of rotting fish or meat. Each odour, pleasant or unpleasant was accompanied by a specific sound.
It was found that when a pleasant odour was played in conjunction with a sound, the participants would inhale deeply. However, when the opposite occurred, that is to say an unpleasant odour and sound was played, the participants would only take shallow breaths and not inhale much at all.
The research also found that when the participants were in a wakeful state, the memory of the tone/odour connection persisted. When the same tone they heard in their sleep was played, they took the same deep or shallow breaths even when there was no corresponding odour present to further remind them. The participants in the study were completely unaware as to both the sound and the odour they had been tested with in their sleep.
The study also found that the participants had more or less the same response to the test whether it was done earlier or later in the sleep cycle, though it seemed to have worked slightly better in those who had taken the test during the Rapid Eye Movement phase of the sleep pattern. A full report on this can be found here.
How these results can be used
Now a correlation has been established between the idea of sleep and learning, Arzi wants to further it. Is it possible, for instance, that in the future, “sleep learning” as this has been termed could be used in cases of mental illness, such as phobias, especially where other therapies have perhaps failed? Psychologists might be able to use techniques that mean instead of patients being hypnotised, they are allowed to fall asleep naturally during a session and are then taught methods of classical conditioning which will aid the particular problem they suffer from.
This might also help with patients who suffer from the particularly distressing condition of sleep apnoea. In a report here, Donal Wilson, who works at the Langone Medical Centre, Orangeburg, New York, believes it might be able to, though he stresses that much more research is needed, but the initial results are encouraging.
What can we do to improve our sleep learning?
It’s clear that for good cognitive function the triumvirate of sleep, exercise and learning seem to go together well. Putting into practice an exercise plan by perhaps looking at these 25 great fitness sites, coupling it with a good sleeping routine is a sure-fire way of making sure that the brain stays sharp, focused and able to concentrate on all the day to day tasks and challenges we face. If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating study, take a look at weizmann.org for more updates and information.
Lily Robinson is a twenty-something year old writer who has always valued the power of a good lie-in, and has never operated well without a good seven hours!