What Is Hypnopaedia? The Myth of Sleep Learning

Maybe You Learned About It In Your Sleep…

By Sheryl Grassie

Hypnopaedia, also spelled hypnopedia, is the concept that humans can learn new information while sleeping. It is commonly referred to as sleep learning or subconscious learning and is more myth than reality. 

Understanding Hypnopaedia

Lady sleeping with sleep headphones

Hypnopaedia, pronounced hip-no-pee-de-a, refers to an attempt to convey information to a sleeping person or the memorization of facts, transference of information or acquisition of new knowledge during sleep, typically by playing a sound recording (or any audio recordings) to them while they sleep. If it were possible, you can only begin to imagine the possibilities. You could learn whole new languages, memorize books, study for tests, and do your work in half the time. If it were even remotely possible, we would all be going crazy trying to find a way to do it.

The idea of sleep learning, although not a scientifically proven concept, has a strong pop culture base. Examples are found in science fiction, films, and literature although they primarily focus on the ability to brainwash and controlling behavior rather than learning in the positive sense. Books like Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World (1932), and Anthony Burgess’s, A Clockwork Orange (1962), exemplify the notion of brainwashing during sleep. The kind of mind control portrayed in these works of fiction would in fact necessitate new learning to take place in real life. 

We must stress the word new in relation to hypnopaedia, because it is all about incorporating previously unfamiliar information. However, for learning to take place, the brain must be in an alpha or higher brain wave state, and these higher vibrational states are all waking states.

In the slower brain wave states of Theta and Delta, the mind is either in a deep meditative state (like that of REM sleep where we dream), or it is in a totally dreamless sleep where there is a loss of all body consciousness. In these states, the mind is unable to take in new information.

Why We Love the Idea of Sleep Learning

The notion of hypnopaedia or sleep learning is appealing to most of us because it entails no real work. It is like getting something for free. You just go to sleep, which you would do anyway, and wake with some new knowledge that you could use for work or school. You could advance your career, impress your boss, ace your test. 

In theory, hypnopaedia would be accomplished with the use of some auditory listening system while asleep. Recorded information would be played next to the sleeping person, and they would take in the information mentally during the night. In a perfect world, you would be able to learn a new profession or go to college in your sleep. Who wouldn’t want access to higher levels of learning without the hefty tuition or time commitment?

Contrary to popular misconception, a hypnotic trance is not a form of unconsciousness or sleep, but hypnotic subjects are actually fully awake, albeit with increased focus and concentration, decreased peripheral awareness and a tendency to block out all external sources of distraction.

Hypnopaedia and Science

Although the idea of hypnopaedia is well loved, and even a staple in science fiction literature, it has yet to gain much validity in the scientific community. Hypnopaedia could, in theory, work off the same principles as subliminals, where messages are given to the unconscious to gain a specific result, similar to hypnosis

Subliminal programs to affect behavior, such as quitting smoking or losing weight, are available in the marketplace. Similar again to hypnotherapy programs, some people do claim to experience success with behavior change by listening to a recorded message while they sleep. 

The same is true for learning a language, there are numerous learn-a-language-in-your-sleep programs, and one does have to wonder, would these companies stay in business if their programs didn’t work?

The problem is this. Things heard and information received during sleep seems to pass the frontal cortex of the brain and does not stay within conscious recall when awake. So, you could learn all the answers to a test while asleep, but you probably couldn’t recall them when you were awake. They might be stored somewhere in your brain, but you couldn’t find them.

Recent Studies

Interestingly, some recent research from Germany has indicated that, although sleep learning in the traditionally-understood sense is not a reality, there may be a possibility of boosting memory formation by auditory stimulation, playing sounds at certain specific times during the sleep cycle.

In a recent study published in Psychological Science, Kristin Sanders and her team used sounds and puzzles to study problem-solving during sleep.

Fifty-seven participants were given puzzles during the evening, each of which was matched with a unique and arbitrary sound. That night when the participants slept, the same sounds were played for ½ of the puzzles that they did not solve. The idea was that the sound might cue the brain to think about that problem while sleeping.

The following morning, the participants were presented with the puzzles that they did not solve the prior evening. They solved an average of 31.7% of the puzzles for which the sound was cued during sleep, but only 20.5% of the puzzles for which no sound was played. This is a 55% improvement in problem-solving by playing the associated sound.

These findings suggest that we can work through cognitive challenges as we slumber away in our warm, comfy beds.

Sleep Learning for Real

There are types of learning that can take place during sleep or are related to sleep. 

  • Problem Solving: Studies repeatedly show that if you are presented with information, given a puzzle, or faced with a mental dilemma, if you literally stop and ‘sleep on it,” it boosts your ability to problem solve. Some types of scientific research support an observation of data, a break where you sleep, and then a return to the analysis of the data. The results are more in-depth, more comprehensive, and more original when sleep takes place between parts of the investigation. 
  • Increased Learning and Recall: Learning something new during sleep and recalling it the next day seems to be impossible. But increased learning, in the form of recalling something you have learned while awake, is supported by sleep. If you study something during the day, and then listen to a recording of that same information while asleep, you will have an increased level of knowledge regarding that information. 
  • Memory: During sleep is when our brains process stored information. Memory consolidation, similar to your computer compressing files, takes place during both slow wave and REM sleep. During slow wave, the mind processes factual information like dates and events that may need to be consciously remembered. REM sleep is when the brain processes implicit information or things you do unconsciously while awake like walking up the stairs, driving a car, or washing the dishes. 
  • A Caution about Hypnopaedia: One fairly obvious concern about trying to learn while sleeping is the noise. Playing a nighttime recording could well interfere with successfully getting into deeper states of sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is probably one of the most important things you can do for daytime learning and functioning, so a practice that compromises that would not be beneficial overall.

Summary

Hypnopaedia is the concept that one can learn while sleeping. The idea is popular in literature and science fiction stories but does not have scientific backing. Learning new information requires an awake or semi-awake state that is not part of sleep. Sleep, however, does have an impact on learning. It can improve analytical function and problem solving, increase recall of learned information, and consolidate memories. Trying to learn while sleeping could interfere with quality sleep that is crucial for overall health and functioning.


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