Newborn Babies Can Learn While Sleeping

Parents have yet another reason to put their little one down for a nap: new research indicates that babies can learn during slumber, and this learning may be an important part of their adaptive development. 

Researchers at Columbia University exposed sleeping 1-to-2 day old infants to tiny puffs of air directed at the eyelid in conjunction with a tone. The study was painless for the sleeping babies. The babies were well-fed before the study began to guarantee they would rest peacefully. To measure the results the scientists put an infant sized EEG net on their head to monitor their brain activity.  In the experimental group, the sound reliably preceded a puff of air, while in the control group tones and puffs of air occurred at random. In less than half an hour, the infants in the experimental group exhibited an increase in conditioned eye movement response—meaning they squeezed their eyes together after just hearing the tone. The sleeping infants learned to associate the sound with the air. According to the researchers the “current experiment demonstrates that newborn infants are capable of learning about relationships between stimuli while asleep.”

Although learning processes in awake newborns are well documented, this is one of the first studies to indicate babies can interpret information while asleep. Since newborns can snooze up to 16 hours a day (sometimes more), the researchers hypothesize that learning while sleeping may be an adaptive trait necessary for survival at an early age. The research team, whose paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported the greatest activity seen in the frontal areas of the babies brains, according to EEG data, which may indicate the updating of incomplete memories.

It is unclear whether adults learn while sleeping, though most researchers believe they do not, or at least not in the same way. However, sleep does play a role in our ability to learn throughout waking hours and getting shut-eye is necessary to consolidate memories and retain new information. Similar mechanisms may be at play for newborns, but because their sleep patterns are so different from older children and adults, the lines between learning and sleeping could be blurred.

Besides helping to elucidate how babies learn and process outside stimuli, the research suggests that eyelid conditioning may be a non-invasive way to identify children with learning difficulties. Eyelid conditioning works in conjunction with the cerebellum, and certain disorders, like dyslexia, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are associated with deficits in this area.

Though moms and dads are not likely to impart high-level mathematical concepts to their napping newborns, they may take comfort in the fact that all that sleep could really be doing their baby good. While your baby sleeps, they may be getting smarter.
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3 Comments

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  • Sadly, for all adults and most children over the age of three, cognitive learning cannot take place while you are asleep. The term “Hypnopedia” was invented in the mid 1940′s to put some kind of “scientific-sounding” definition to the concept – but like most pseudo-science, the words all sound gloriously convincing while the facts always suggest precicely the opposite.

    Babies – and children up to no more than three years old – probably do “learn” while they are asleep, and a recent study indicated that there may be some truth in this, largely because of bio-neurological developments in the brain that occur when we are all very young – eg: the development of synapse networks (all the nerve cables and switches that map out across the brain). As these (largely) biological developments take place, the brain’s wiring joins up many different parts. “Knowledge” in various areas can subsequently be assimilated and collectively evaluated by the brain as this wiring network grows – and as it grows even while a baby is asleep, the physical linking up is believed to influence cognitive processes.

    By the time we are two or three years old (even earlier in most people), the brain’s wiring is largely complete and if anything, it starts to slowly deteriorate from that point onwards.

    Learning (in the sense that adults understand it) is a conscious process and requires structured, ordered thinking. Your brain’s capacity to order and structure information (indeed to make sense of it) is vastly diminished when you are asleep, and your subconscious mind has absolutely no capacity to learn anything whatsoever. You have no sense of time when you are asleep, and for the most part, logic deserts you. This is why when you remember parts of a dream, they seem so absurd, or wierd.

    Sleep can help you learn of course. Lengthy studies at Harvard Medical School on sleep and sleep behaviour show that a good night’s rest can contribute significantly to learning when you wake up. A well-rested and refreshed brain is far more perceptive to stimuli and is more lilkely to retain information.

    So don’t waste your money on ”Learn Japanese While You Sleep”… or if you do buy the recordings, get a good night’s rest and listen to the material ONLY when you are wide awake!

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