Nap Your Way to a New Language

Nap Your Way to a New Language


You don’t need to be conscious to learn—who knew?

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? Why yes, French lesson, we shall doze off with you, and here is why: Research suggests that we can learn vocabulary from a new language, even while we are asleep.

A study published in the journal Current Biology has shown that words in a foreign language, as well as their meanings, heard during a midday nap can be stored in the brain and later remembered. During the research, which was conducted at the University of Bern, Switzerland, sleeping people heard an artificial (to be neutral) language, as well as the “translation” of the word, such as “tofer = key,” repeated. After they woke up, they had a better-than-chance accuracy of linking words and concepts together. For example, someone who had heard “guga = elephant,” could then describe something large as “guga.”

“It was interesting that language areas of the brain and the hippocampus – the brain’s essential memory hub – were activated during the wake retrieval of sleep-learned vocabulary because these brain structures normally mediate wake learning of new vocabulary,” wrote

Marc Züst, the paper’s co-first-author, in the study. “These brain structures appear to mediate memory formation independently of the prevailing state of consciousness – unconscious during deep sleep, conscious during wakefulness”.

These findings are surprising because it’s been generally understood that sleep is a separate state, detached from whatever is happening around us as we slumber. This study disproves that, opening the door to the possibility that sophisticated learning is possible, even while catching up on your shut-eye.

The study is part of a larger scientific work, “Decoding Sleep: From Neurons to Health and Mind,” which involves 13 research groups working to gain a deeper understanding of the processes involved in sleep, cognition and consciousness. The research groups include experts in medicine, biology, psychology and infomatics (information engineering). As the research continues, expect to see continued breakthroughs in our understanding of sleep, as well as insights into diseases such as epilepsy, and the role various states of altered consciousness play.

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