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The idea that we might be able to take in information and learn during sleep is intriguing. At one time, it was believed that playing a foreign-language teaching record during sleep would help in to learning the language. However, although research has shown that the brain is still operating while a person sleeps (e.g., a sleeping mother is so sensitive to her baby that the slightest irregular sound from her offspring will awaken her), the memory-storing part of the brain is apparently “offline” (which may explain why dreams are so easily forgotten). One thing that has been experimentally demonstrated with respect to sleep learning is that during sleep we can become progressively acclimated to things like loud noises and bright lights so that we are less easily awakened.
Another, quite different approach to the general notion of sleep learning is research that indicates that during sleep the brain consolidates and restructures memories in ways that are important for learning new information. Thus, for example, in mice learning to navigate a maze, the brain seems to replay the maze experience over and over during sleep. This seems to “solidify” the memory and, some researchers speculate, “essentialize” the learning in a way that aides learning subsequent, similar tasks.