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Does sleep learning really work? by Kenneth Miller, Aeon


Stashed in: Sleep!, Science!, Learn!, Brain

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Inconclusive. Sleep has a clear purpose and we don't know what messing with that will do.

Sleep-learning could be used in therapy to replace traumatic memories with less charged recollections of the same events. That might require drugs to pry open the neural gates, allowing a Super-Psycho-Phone to funnel content directly into the hippocampus. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley recently devised a method for recording a subject’s neural patterns as she watches a video, translating them into computer code, and generating a fuzzy approximation of the original imagery. Some day, perhaps, the process will be refined and reverse-engineered, producing neuro-downloadable multimedia courses in Italian for beginners.

The potential is obvious, and not only for over-scheduled language geeks such as me. Students in every field might achieve proficiency twice as fast as they do now, and go on to learn twice as much. Anyone seeking to acquire new job skills, master a musical instrument or explore the intricacies of particle physics could do so with almost magical ease.

But the risks seem palpable, too. Hypnopaedia could undermine the restorative functions that normally occur during sleep – for example, the pruning of excess neural connections to make room for memories to come. After a night of unconscious exam-cramming, it might be harder to learn anything new the next day. Learning while sleeping could also make less brain energy available for consolidating long-term memories, perhaps leading to the erasure of last year’s trip to Istanbul. It might disrupt the nocturnal cleansing of the brain’s metabolic wastes by glial cells, increasing the learner’s vulnerability to neurodegenerative ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease.

During sleep, the brain rebalances both the immune and endocrine systems; that’s why sleep disorders are associated with ills including depression, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Tinkering with the controls might have nasty consequences.

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