learning while we sleep

new research finds that humans can learn while asleep. a recent study found that volunteers took deeper breaths when exposed to a pleasant smell while they slept and shallower breaths when exposed to an unpleasant smell. by pairing a high pitched beep with the pleasant smell the volunteers eventually began to take deeper breaths when the beep was presented even without the pleasant smell all while asleep. not only did learning take place during sleep, it also carried over to the research subjects’ behavior during wakefulness. while they had no conscious recollection of what they’d experienced while sleeping, they acted on their learning while awake, taking deeper breaths when the high pitched beep was sounded during their wakeful hours.

while the implications of these findings interest me on many levels, a few thoughts in particular have held me captive since their discovery.

if we are learning while we sleep, what is the cell phone under our pillow teaching us?

if smells and sounds presented during sleep “taught” reactions to the volunteers that persisted during wakefulness, how are the rings, beeps, vibrations, or even simple presences of our phones (and other screens) in our beds teaching us?

it appears that sleep provides an opportunity for our brains to consolidate our learning. this means that we take material we’ve been presented with during wakeful hours and encode it into more deeply integrated memory as we rest. if we study for a test then take a nap, we’re likely to recall more than we would without sleeping.

several years back a fad diet centered on a pill to be taken before bed. “lose weight while you sleep!” “burn fat while you dream!” were tag lines used in ad campaigns. what impressed me most about the fact that this diet pill sold well was the fact that it exposed our tendency to forego the rest of the night for the worries of the day. “since i can’t seem to make myself skinny during the day, how about i go to bed hoping to tackle my weight problem while i sleep.”

sleep is intended to function as a “breather” for our minds and bodies. dreams help us work through situations from our day and our cells regenerate while we sleep. as the size of our technological devices has decreased and screens have become an integral part of many bedrooms (think televisions, laptops, screen based readers, ipads, ipods, and phones) it seems as though these vital functions of sleep are now in competition with those stressors that fill our days. whether we use technology in the bedroom to entertain, stay in touch, do our work, or keep us from feeling lonely we are abstaining from opportunities to learn to let the concerns of the day go and settle into the rest that night might offer. aside from the research findings that illuminated screens can act as mood de-stabilizers and stimulants, the mere psychological dependence upon being fully connected, even while we supposedly sleep, seems worthy of a good, hard look.

as a people we have nearly fully embraced the belief that we can’t get by without a cell phone during our waking hours. do we need to make this our night time reality as well? sure, there are fun apps (that seem so useful) intended to read our sleep cycles via movement and find the best time to sound the alarm based on them. there are timers designed to turn our “falling asleep” music down, and eventually off, when our movements suggest we are asleep. cable, hulu, youtube, and netflix allow a cast of characters to keep us company through the entire night. and we are left learning, through it all, that quiet, rest, and nothingness are to be avoided at all costs. reinforcing the truth of our technological dependence during the day we consolidate the notion that being unplugged is not worth the cost. even the cost of rest.

and so we’re left asking, what’s the worst thing that could happen if i left my phone charging on the kitchen counter and pulled out that silly old alarm clock out of the goodwill box in the garage? what might i miss if i let my texts and emails and television shows wait until daylight? and what might i receive?