Osmosis De-Debunked? Sound Effects Cue Sleep Learning

By Andrew Moseman | November 23, 2009 6:00 am

sleep narcolepsy220Amid mounting evidence that sleep is key for your memory, researchers published a paper in the journal Science last week suggesting that playing specific sounds while a person sleeps—sounds connected to something that the person is trying to memorize—could help the memory sink in.

The researchers taught people to move 50 pictures to their correct locations on a computer screen. Each picture was accompanied by a related sound — meow for a cat, whirring for a helicopter, for example [The New York Times]. Next the test subjects lay down for a nap, and while they slept the researchers played sounds relating to half the objects. When the subjects woke up, scientists tested them on how well they remembered where each object went. Participants didn’t know they’d been subjected to the sounds while they napped, but they fared better at placing the objects for which they heard sounds in their sleep than those they didn’t.

Lead researcher Ken Paller explains: “While asleep, people might process anything that happened during the day — what they ate for breakfast, television shows they watched, anything…. But we decided which memories our volunteers would activate, guiding them to rehearse some of the locations they had learned an hour earlier” [U.S. News & World Report].

Some scientists didn’t buy the sound-sleep connection. Neuroscientist Robert Vertes said the results showed “such a minor effect that it’s not significant,” adding that the effect was even less significant because other study subjects who remained awake showed similarly better recall with sound cues [The New York Times].

Still, the research team effused enthusiasm, saying the study suggests the sleeping brain is coachable, and sleepers could be coached to remember specific things they’ve already learned. However, it doesn’t provide evidence that those “learn a new language in your sleep” recordings do any good. So you might want to steer clear of them, lest you find yourself like Dexter the boy genius, repeating “omlette du fromage” all day.

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Image: iStockphoto

MORE ABOUT: brain, learning, memory, sleep
  • http://80beats George Potvin

    Re: Osmosis Learning.
    You write “omlette du fromage.”
    It should be “omelette au fromage.”
    Please take the time to show respect to other languages.
    And please tell all Americans that it’s Ee-ran, not Eye-ran

  • The_Devil_made_me_do_it

    I’m guessing George has never spelled anything wrong. Even if it is in some other language. What a looser. Also, Ee-ran and Eye-ran are the same place, numb nuts. The difference is in how people speak. Different people, from different parts of the world, have different accents. So, you George, should take time to show respect to other accents.

  • Tatyana

    It’s okay to misspel and it’s okay to mispronounce, and it’s also precious to say “Thank you” for being corrected.
    By the way, I am an American and I pronounce Ee-ran.

  • Gabe

    These results do not surprise me. I recall once having surgery and being under Sodium Pentathol I think. Under that, I was really unconscious. But I think normal sleep is far from loosing consciousness. You are just a little bit less aware. It is quite possible that narcotics and other drugs alter normal sleep and cause all sorts of problems.

  • J Nettles

    The point is – Dexter said omelette du fromage, not au fromage. My entire family remembers that phrase from that show years ago, although we don’t remember anything about that episode or any other quote for any episode.

    I met a someone who was working in Albania once, and shamefully admitted that all I knew about the country came from the Cheers episode where Coach put Albanian facts to music. This episode first aired 20 years ago, but this person says she hears this ALL the time. People know Albania borders on the Adriatic and its chief export is chrome.

    I watch very little television and can quote almost nothing from it – the only 2 things I can quote are from shows on rote learning. Maybe the combination of visual and audible learning works?

  • http://www.twitter.com/modernopacity Joce

    This was a nice little article to read. I did a research project on hypnopaedia in high school, many years ago. I did not find anything conclusive, but I still find the idea fascinating nonetheless.

    P.S. George, before you decide to be pretentious, you may want to check that you have the correct verb tense. It should have been “wrote,” not “write.”

  • Sola

    Would everyone stop this petty bickering over spelling & pronunciation for god’s sakes. Grow up!

  • http://www.twitter.com/modernopacity Joce

    But Soooollllaaa, Geoooorggge started it.

  • Jockaira

    Obviously George was using the present historic tense which conjugates in the same fashion as the present indicative tense, therefore the form “write” is correct. It can be inferred from George’s choice of the present historic tense instead of the more commonly used simple preterite tense that he places great relative importance on his statement “You write ‘omlette du fromage.’” and is very concerned that readers take note of the presented fact as well as his generously provided correction.

    On George’s well-intentioned attempt to correct a sometimes mispronounced “Iran”, it is sufficient to say that ordinary English syllabification stress would change ee-rahn or ih-rahn to eye-ran in accord with common usage rules governing those words with ultimate stress, so any of the three is correct depending upon which rule set is used. George has provided a faulty pronunciation aid in the construction “Ee-ran.” A speaker using ee-ran would compel the listener to refer to context in order to synthesize meaning from such an abomination and might be better advised to fall back on the dialectic eye-ran if he feels uncomfortable with ih-rahn or ee-rahn.

    As for Dexter, he’s wrong (Je vous demande pardon pour mon jeu de mots), unless his geniusity has discovered a way to make omelettes from cheese which is improbable for a fictional cartoon character having relevance mostly to pre-literate children and adults with developmentally arrested social skills. If Dexter has, in fact, done this, then the more proper application might perhaps be “fromagelette”, a construction currently under consideration by l’Académie de la Française.”

    This content provided as a public service by Drive-By Trolls, Inc.™

  • Horst-Walter B.

    My english is not very good. So I ask myself about the sence of the discussion. The question cannot be “is it dialect ” but only “is it correct”. In Europe we learn this in school.

  • Roy

    You are all fascinating, and I thought I had nothing to do!

  • audra

    How do any of these comments relate to the subject of the article? I should try some night time cues to learn French so I can comment on the correct phrase. Ha, as in H-ahh. You guys are funny!

  • Dumbo

    You don’t even know how to make an omelette. I have a recipe, but you wouldn’t understand it. Uh. Anyhow, there’s eggs and stuff. But in Iran they have different recipes, so there’s no way to verify.

  • http://buzzflash.net/story.php?id=1449956 Candida Voll

    You made a number of good points there. I did a search on the theme and found mainly persons will agree with your blog.


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