In a study reminiscent of Pavlov’s dog, researchers attempted to see if simple conditional lessons could be learned during the sleep cycle of adult human beings.
The idea that humans can learn in their sleep is nothing new. Complex lessons like foreign languages or textbook lessons proved too complex for people to learn while sleeping. This study focused on breathing.
Researchers introduced pleasant and unpleasant scents while the subject slept. Pleasant scents resulted in larger breaths while unpleasant scents had the opposite effect. The researchers paired sounds with the scents, building a conditional response.
“The common knowledge is that you cannot learn new information while you’re asleep, even though your brain is able to do so many other things while you are asleep,” said the study’s lead author, Anat Arzi, a graduate student at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Following the introduction of the sound, researchers used the sounds without the scents. Subjects continued to take bigger or smaller breaths based on the sounds associated with the scents earlier.
The tones continued to work after the subjects were awake, unbeknownst to the test subjects. This suggests human beings can learn conditioning behaviors while sleeping soundly.
Researchers are now looking for practical uses for their findings, like conditioning people to change bad habits.
“We need to understand where the border lies between what we can and what we cannot learn in sleep,” Ms. Arzi said.
The study was published Aug. 26 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.