It sounds like every student's dream: research published today in Nature Neuroscience shows that we can learn entirely new information while we snooze.
Anat Arzi of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and her colleagues used a simple form of learning called classical conditioning to teach 55 healthy participants to associate odours with sounds as they slept.
They repeatedly exposed the sleeping participants to pleasant odours, such as deodorant and shampoo, and unpleasant odours such as rotting fish and meat, and played a specific sound to accompany each scent.
It is well known that sleep has an important role in strengthening existing memories, and this conditioning was already known to alter sniffing behaviour in people who are awake. The subjects sniff strongly when they hear a tone associated with a pleasant smell, but only weakly in response to a tone associated with an unpleasant one.
But the latest research shows that the sleep conditioning persists even after they wake up, causing them to sniff strongly or weakly on hearing the relevant tone — even if there was no odour. The participants were completely unaware that they had learned the relationship between smells and sounds. The effect was seen regardless of when the conditioning was done during the sleep cycle. However, the sniffing responses were slightly more pronounced in those participants who learned the association during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, which typically occurs during the second half of a night's sleep.