There is a classic classroom image that we are all too familiar with: the sleeping student. From elementary school to college and beyond there is always at least one student who can be seen slumped at his desk, having fallen asleep from either exhaustion or boredom. And while the idea of this ill-timed slumber might be jarring (and depressing), according to a new study, it turns out that it may not mean a total loss of learning, at least when it comes to scent associations.
“We know we can consolidate the day’s information while we sleep,” says Anat Arzi from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. “But attempts to teach new facts using verbal information have failed.” The researchers found that they were able to make scent and sound associations while their subjects slumbered. As the New Scientist reports, “While subjects slept, the team played different sounds, each followed by the release of a specific aroma. Just as they would when awake, the sleeping subjects took deeper sniffs in response to pleasant scents and shallower sniffs in response to unpleasant scents.”
It may not mean that a kid can snooze and learn all about the War of 1812 in the process, but it does expand the field of when learning can happen. “We are able to do more than we thought while we sleep,” Arzi says. “It’ll be great to find the limits of what we can learn.”
Donald Wilson at New York University Langone Medical Center was apparently encouraged by the findings, saying, “we thought the olfactory system went offline during sleep, but this study shows that some information is going in and being retained.”
And while there is no scholastic application for these findings yet, the researchers are hopeful that it could assist people who have issues like sleep apnea, where they could be trained to take deep breaths on cue.
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