Sitting back with earphones while a tape or CD plays seems like an effortless way to learn. You imagine your brain to be like a sponge. You think it would soak up information the way a kitchen sponge soaks up spills.
The trouble is, the learning process doesn’t work that way, especially when it comes to a topic that’s slightly complicated. That’s because the learning process generally has to be more active than that. The brain needs to make connections. Making connections takes a little work. Making connections between the material you’re trying to learn is generally an active process.
Most people know this, too, though they get tempted through intrinsic laziness. It sounds easy this way, right? Surely you retain something?
Sleep learning, also known as passive learning, can have a role. The scenario above just isn’t it.
While sleep learning doesn’t work that way for acquiring new information, listening 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 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 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 to retain the material.
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.
The bedroom is a 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 significant 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 that 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.
The biggest benefit of passive learning
The biggest benefit of passive learning is enthusiasm. Actively trying to make connections between disparate material 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.
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 that 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 about memory consolidation.
It’s a beautiful thing as long as it doesn’t interfere with the primary purpose of sleeping, and that’s sleep.
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.
Don’t feel like learning anything tonight? Try falling asleep to sleeping sounds.
Not dreaming? What’s up with that?