The Quick Report

Can You Learn in Your Sleep? Scientists Say Yes

It’s well established that adequate restful sleep is necessary for optimal brain and memory performance, and now studies indicate that the brain keeps learning in your sleep, particularly during non-REM sleep.

Good Sleep Is Essential to Memory

The most critical factor in learning anything is memory. Numerous studies have determined that for optimal memory performance, restful sleep is essential.

Sleep requirements change as we age. Here are recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Age 6-13: 9-11 hours.
  • Age 14-17: 8-10 hours.
  • Age 18-64: 7-9 hours.
  • Age 65 and up: 7-8 hours.

Unfortunately, according to a Gallup poll, 40% of Americans get less than the recommended amount of sleep. On average, Americans get only 6.8 hours of sleep per night. That’s down more than an hour from 1942.

Not only do memory performance and the ability to think clearly depend on adequate sleep, but sleep is also necessary to maintain critical body functions, repair muscle tissue, restore energy, and allow the brain to process new information.

Sleep deprivation can cause a range of physical and mental problems which include the ability to focus, react, think clearly, and control emotions.

Medical research has also connected long-term sleep deprivation with an increase in serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression, as well as affecting the immune system.

Your Brain Can Learn While You Sleep

The brain remains active while we are sleeping. One of the functions that happens during sleep is memory consolidation, which is where the brain processes and understands new information.


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According to science, the brain has distinct procedures it uses to process, learn, and remember new information. This occurs in three separate stages:

  1. Acquisition: Acquiring new information.
  2. Consolidation: Processes within the brain that help stabilize learned information. Neural connections are formed that help develop lasting memories and make them stronger.
  3. Recall: The ability to access learned information after it has been stored by the brain.

The acquisition and recall stages occur while we are awake. However, the consolidation stage occurs during sleep.

Science Uncovers When Sleep Learning Happens

There are two primary stages of sleep: Non-REM and REM. These are further divided into four stages:

  1. NREM stage N1: Falling asleep.
  2. NREM stage N2: Light sleep.
  3. NREM stage N3: Deepest sleep state.
  4. REM stage R: Primary dreaming stage.

When it comes to memory, science has learned that non-REM sleep appears to play a significant role in sleep learning. 

A 2013 study suggested the slow-wave sleep phase of non-REM sleep is essential for memory consolidation. A 2018 study also identified key markers in memory consolidation. Additional studies in 2018 found that mappers had better retention of newly learned picture memories and word associations. 

A similar 2019 study played a pair of words to napping participants – one real and one false – to describe something either larger or smaller than a shoebox. The sleepers gave accurate answers that were higher than chance, suggesting people may be able to learn new information during slow-wave sleep and recall it later.

What Can Be Learned While Sleeping?

Scientists say the type of learning that occurs during sleep typically involves associations, pairing, and conditioning. Therefore, the types of new things we can most likely learn may be related to language or music.

We can also learn conditioning while we sleep, such as for breaking an unwanted habit. And studies have shown sleep conditioning has helped people reduce or quit smoking.

Key Takeaways

Before you can go about learning or conditioning your brain in your sleep, is essential to get enough sleep. A sleep-deprived brain will struggle with memory.

Rid your environment of things that may hamper good sleep, adjust your diet, and unplug and unwind before bed.

And remember, learning in your sleep is possible, but it’s a long, slow, and steady process.