Does Learning While You Sleep Really Work?

Sleep learning is engraving details in your brain.

Sitting back with earphones while a tape or CD plays seems like an effortless way to learn. You might imagine your brain to be like a sponge or paper towel as if it would soak up information the way a kitchen sponge soaks up spills.

The trouble is, learning doesn’t work that way, especially when it comes to a complicated topic.

Rather than some lecture that you’re not going to pay attention to, you might as well as listen to something you’d actually enjoy. Neurons don’t effortlessly make connections.

Learning is more like digging canals than seeping water. For it to stick, it has to be more active than the process known as capillarity, the process by which a towel soaks up water. The brain needs to make connections. Making connections takes mental work.

Most people know this, too, even though they might try to see if there’s a better way. Listening to a tape of a lecture sounds like a painless, easy way to learn. You can catch up on your sleep and study for your classes. Surely you retain something?

Don’t you wish you did? That would be so easy.

Wait! Don’t dismiss passive learning completely

Sleep learning, also known as passive learning and hypnopedia, can have a role. The scenario above just isn’t it.

While sleep learning doesn’t work that way for acquiring new information, listening to information before you slip off into REM sleep works very well for information review. Reviewing information helps strengthen the already existing connections, helping to affix the information in the mind. It helps with later information recall. It’s another opportunity to make those connections between synapses.

This is known as information mastery. It’s part of learning as well.

It’s also known as memory consolidation.

It just won’t work unless you do some active learning first.

Other forms of passive learning include listening to lectures and rote memorization. With passive learning, the student doesn’t receive any feedback from an instructor. The brain is exposed to the material, and the hope is something sticks.

Passive learning can’t be your whole strategy, not if you hope to really master the material.

It can, however, have its place.

The trouble is separating the hype from the truth.

“Learn while you sleep” ads don’t talk about this. It’s work.

They also don’t touch on the importance of good sleep hygiene when it comes to undertaking a project to learn while you sleep. Consistent, healthy sleep practices are fundamental to both your health and retaining the material.

Separating the concepts

Sleep Learning = Passive Learning = Hypnopaedia

“Hypnopaedia” is also spelled “hypnopedia.”

Information Mastery = Memory Consolidation

Reinforce a foreign language with passive learning

Learning another language is time-consuming and challenging. Listening to recordings in a new language seems like an excellent way to get some additional hours of practice in.

Language tapes are available on many music-streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and Amazon Music. You can listen to language recordings as you walk through your neighborhood, do household chores, or wash the dog. You can also listen as you fall asleep. Sometimes it’s hard because your attention has to wander away from the lesson so you can be safe or get the job done. Sometimes other noises interfere with the lesson you’re trying to hear, like when a loud truck passes by and you’re walking by the side of a road.

Your bedroom may be the perfect place to listen to these kinds of recordings.

You might have to listen to the same tape twice—or even more—but being able to do two things at once is a pretty awesome benefit.

This passive learning reinforcement strategy works for more than foreign language and classroom lectures. You can listen to podcasts, books on tape, and you can even make your own recordings by reading into a recorder, many programs of which are available on the smartphone.

The key, however, is that it’s best to pursue topics you’re already well-acquainted with. You’re rounding your knowledge out. You’re making the mental connections more accessible. Very likely, nothing more.

Even so, that’s not bad. Making strong mental connections with information you already know can be a powerful goal.

It’s too bad that the additional time spent sleep learning for memory consolidation won’t help your streak or your number of points on Duolingo.

Additional benefits of passive learning

The biggest benefit of passive learning is enthusiasm. Actively trying to make connections between disparate materials takes work. You can get tired of this pretty easily. On the other hand, when you’re learning passively, you’re getting benefits from the activity that you’re pursuing along with passive learning. You’re getting the exercise, the exposure to the sunlight, the drive to or from work, or the rest. Maybe you’re getting a clean dog. Whatever. That has to make you feel efficient. Feeling efficient makes you feel good.

It’s a change of gears.

Seeing if this kind of passive learning works for you is perfect for doing a study of one.

The key is to be as objective as possible when gauging the effects of your experiment. This helps you reinforce the behavior to yourself.

If you’ve been learning a foreign language, try practicing the language on real people after refreshing your neural synapses with language tapes. Rate the experiences from one to five. Compare the reactions when you haven’t been listening to the language recordings. When I did this, my interactions in the foreign language were very positive. The enthusiasm that passive learning brought to the process was the difference-maker.

If passive learning is painless to you, consider the probability it’s helping you master the material you want to learn.

If you’re taking a class, try listening to old lectures of material that’s going to be on your final. Or listen to current material as presented by another instructor or source. Bedtime passive learning is about mastery. Information mastery is memory consolidation.

Information mastery? Memory consolidation?

Whether you call it information mastery or memory consolidation, it’s a beautiful thing as long as it doesn’t interfere with the primary purpose of sleeping.

That would be resting and recharging.

Passive learning can be relaxing if you approach it in the right way, with the mindset that you’re going to enjoy it.

It probably won’t work for you if you’re like most people and are trying to passively learn information before a test you feel nervous about. This is more for the people who want to learn something for the sheer joy of learning something new, or are proceeding unhurriedly toward their goals in life.


For more information:

Don’t feel like learning anything tonight? Try falling asleep to sleeping sounds.

Not dreaming? What’s up with that?

4 Things You Can Actually Learn In Your Sleep


For further reading:

Get to bed on time

Acid reflux? How to win at eating and sleeping.

Speak with your wallet and forget about it at bedtime

Should you bore yourself to sleep?


James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. His goal is to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life. 


This post includes affiliate links for which we receive a small commission if something is purchased through the link. 

Updated May 3, 2021

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