Learn While You Sleep (Nov, 1958)

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Learn While You Sleep

By Lester David

The small voice under the pillow can teach you anything from self-confidence to college math.

HELEN McGRATH was fast asleep. At her bedside was a tape recorder, quietly repeating words into her subconscious mind. You’d never mistake the scene for a classroom, yet it was exactly that. Because Helen McGrath was learning Spanish while she snoozed!

For six and a half hours that night, one lesson was played over and over again, words and phrases burrowing deep into her mind. On waking, Helen played the lesson through once again.

Miss McGrath, a skeptical newspaper reporter for the Vancouver Sun in Canada, was conducting a personal experiment to find out whether sleep learning actually works. With no prior knowledge of Spanish, she sleep-studied the language for seven nights. On the eighth day she lunched with Frank P. Bernard, Spanish vice-consul in Vancouver, to test how much she knew.

To her amazement, Miss McGrath began identifying things on the table—in Spanish! She found she could converse in Spanish, haltingly but understandably. She was even able to read bits from a Spanish novel and magazines.

Commented Mr. Bernard: Helen learned as much Spanish in that week as a normal adult would get from six months of serious study!

Helen’s experience, recounted in detail in her newspaper not long ago, may be astonishing but it does not stand alone. The startling fact is that sleep study is generating a powerful current of excitement among leading education authorities throughout this country and abroad. New experiments in the field are opening the eyes of eminent medical specialists and psychologists.

Here’s a capsule view of what’s happening: • Controlled tests in leading universities are showing that people can learn while asleep. Experiments prove that foreign languages can be mastered more rapidly if wide-awake study is supplemented by snooze-study.

• Psychologists are teaching patients to “unlearn” bad habits ranging from over-eating to speech defects. Many mothers have reported significant success in training youngsters to stop thumb-sucking, bed-wetting and nail-biting through recordings played while the children slept.

• TV actors, public speakers, ministers and opera singers are using sleep learning to become letter-perfect in their roles and speeches.

What is sleep learning, actually? How does it work, and why?

To get the answers, I spoke at length with Max Sherover, president of the Linguaphone Institute of New York and one of the pioneers in the field. Mr.

Sherover has coined the word “dormiphonics,” defining it as a “new scientific method that makes quick relaxed learning possible, awake or asleep.”

Dormiphonics, declares Mr. Sherover, works by “repeated concentrated impact of selected material on the conscious and subconscious mind.” His firm markets two types of special equipment for the purpose.

The first looks like an ordinary four-speed phonograph and, to a point, it’s just that. The machine spins commercially-prepared platters of anything the student wants to absorb but it has a special gizmo: there’s a built-in electric clock which can be set so that the machine will start playing a recording at any designated time, keep it going as long as the listener wishes and stop exactly when he wants. If he wants it to start up again a little later, that can be arranged too.

The second is a “memory trainer,” actually a tape recorder and playback device with automatic gadgetry attached. Here a student makes his own recording of anything he wants to learn—speech, sermon, vocabulary, fact, figures. There is the same clock setup through which he can play it back when he wishes. Both machines are equipped with under-pillow speakers which only the sleepers can hear.

A number of other firms are in the business of providing sleep learning equipment. The Ben Sweetland Systems, Inc., of San Francisco, Calif., markets a record player and a lecture course. The Sweet-land firm, which is opening branches all over the country, did $100,000 worth of business when it began only three years ago. “This year,” asserts 69-year-old Mr. Sweetland, “I’ll be disappointed if sales don’t exceed $1,000,000.”

In Los Angeles the American Sleep Teaching Association and the International Sleep Teaching Institute—formerly the Cambridge Institute- -report brisk sleep learning disc sales. In France, Jacques Genevay has just invented the Automatophone, a tape recorder which repeats a message over and over to a sleeper.

Sleep learning may sound mystical, even magical, but there’s a logical explanation for the phenomenon. Researchers long ago discovered that the human brain never stops working, even in sleep. Only recently, the Sleep Research Foundation reported, following scientific studies, that while most of the lines between consciousness and the outside world are disconnected during deep sleep, certain vital trunk lines are always plugged in. For example, a bone-tired mother in deep slumber will not stir as airplanes roar overhead and trucks rumble by outside. But if her baby coughs or cries out in distress—though the sound by comparison is almost inaudible—she wakens instantly.

The important point is that the brain is operative during sleep. The conscious mind shuts off but the subconscious portion does not. Time and again, people have gone to sleep with a problem on their minds, only to awaken and find it solved. It was the subconscious, working while the outer mind was sleeping.

The sleep teachers argue that this subconscious mind is thus receptive to foreign languages, facts, figures and even therapy.

One of the most dramatic experiments in sleep therapy is now underway in the Tulare County road camp near Visalia, Calif., where some 100 convicts have volunteered to act as guinea pigs.

As the prisoners go to sleep, a recording plays at regular volume for a short time, then is shut off. An hour later, when the men are in deep sleep, the recording goes on again, this time much lower. Each convict hears the voice through a separate earphone near or under his pillow.

The voice, low but insistent, keeps droning into the sleeping men’s subconscious: “Life is worth living wholeheartedly. . .

“Love shall rule your life. You shall love God, your family and others. You shall do unto others as you want others to do unto you. . .

“You shall have a major goal in life. You shall plan, carry out and attain that goal. You shall work and share with others. You shall grow in mind and spirit. You will attain self respect and maturity because you are good. . .

“You will live without alcohol. Alcohol is poison. You do not need alcohol. You can abstain from alcohol. Alcohol is repulsive to you. . .”

Already, 52 of the 100 prisoners have reported “substantial benefits” from the talks. One inmate told the superintendent that he always dreamed of liquor but “when I had the same dream last night it made me sick to my stomach.” Another declared that the treatments made him feel that “people are not down on me.” A third said the messages are enabling him to go to sleep “with a clean mind.”

Is sleep learning fully accepted? At this stage, the method is frankly controversial. As a new scientific tool, it is still too early to determine its ultimate value. A number of fairly wild claims are being made by a few promoters, stirring the watchful interest of the Federal Trade Commission.

Nevertheless, the method is attracting increasing numbers of rabid adherents. The Wall St. Journal reports that already 100,000 persons throughout the country are enrolled in sleep-study courses.

Besides learning languages, they are building vocabularies, correcting speech defects, memorizing sermons, learning the Morse Code, getting sales pitches down pat and heeding all kinds of suggestions calculated to develop and improve their personalities. They are listening to records designed to cure insomnia, claustrophobia, fear of darkness, shyness and the cigarette and liquor habits. A whole new industry is arising, providing records and special equipment for the sleep learners.

More evidence is needed, of course, before the final score on this new educational tool can be properly assayed but if it fulfills its early promises the prospects are dazzling, to say the least.

Technological progress is proceeding at a bewilderingly rapid pace. In the past 20 years, man has piled up more complex lore than the world accumulated in the preceding thousand of years.

There are just so many hours in the day during which we can cram all this learning into our heads. Man has to sleep sometimes. But man might well be able to use that time, not only to refresh his body, but to amass more knowledge, more information, more skills. And in the most painless possible way!

  1. Mike says: May 26, 200910:42 pm

    In grade school and college I was trying to explain this learning technique but the teachers didn’t believe it.

  2. Firebrand38 says: May 27, 200912:42 am

    I don’t blame them. It’s curious that this article came out after the definitive study published in 1955 showed that it didn’t work

    Also see at the Rand Corporation website


  3. garym says: May 27, 20099:18 am

    Didn’t it turn out that, at best, people could quote back the material but had no idea what it meant?

  4. Firebrand38 says: May 27, 20099:35 am

    No that’s an episode of The Prisoner you’re thinking of http://www.theprisonero…

    If you would follow the link that I provided the abstract to the study is (S= subject):

    A list of ten one-syllable nouns was repeated as many times as possible to nine Ss during an eight-hour sleep period. A continuous EEG recording during the presentation of the training material was used to determine the sleep level at that time. The stimulus material was turned off as soon as cyclical activity within the alpha range was observed. The experimental Ss did not do significantly better than the control group in selecting the words on the training list of 50 words. Nor did they choose the training words any more frequently than they chose an equivalent list of untrained words. There was some indication that words presented during a period of deep drowsiness can be retained, but this was significant only when the S was also able to give an immediate response to the material being presented. The effects of sleep level and the importance of continuous EEG monitoring while presenting the training material are discussed in their relation to recall. It is concluded that material presented a number of times during sleep (using an EEG criterion) cannot be subsequently recalled. (Author)
    Cannot be recalled.

  5. Jari says: May 27, 200911:36 am

    Also notice the targeted ads… Most of them are related to the article.

  6. Firebrand38 says: May 27, 200912:40 pm

    Actually all the posts on this blog have ads like that.

  7. -DOUG- says: May 27, 20093:50 pm

    Sleep teaching worked on ‘The Flintstones,’ Fred and Barney did EVERYTHING Wilma and Betty told them to. I remember all sorts of the old reruns from the late 50’s and into the 60’s depicted this. I don’t recall seeing any lingering offerings of learn languages in your sleep and such, so I assume the fad passed quickly, but the TV writers just couldn’t let it go. People seemed to go on believing in it

    It apparently really is the creation of Aldous Huxley in ‘Brave New World,’ where children grow up being taught in their sleep. Here is where the reference was to people reciting what they’d heard in their sleep without knowing what it was. Huxley gave it the name ‘Hypnopædia.’

    One sentence puzzles me: “The stimulus material was turned off as soon as cyclical activity within the alpha range was observed.” Shouldn’t that be when it was turned ON?” Meanwhile, it’s well and good to measure the short term effects, but we don’t really learn things short term. Socrates said so many times in so many ways, ‘You can’t learn what you don’t already know.’ Could there in fact be a benefit from some sort of implanting of this in the back of your mind, to ease your abilty to actually learn it later? A language, for example, isn’t even learned in the classroom, it’s learned when you go out and USE IT. I can’t imagine they went to the trouble of testing people in that way.

    At the time this article ran, the CIA was beginning an experiment on UNWITTING victims that involved drug enhanced sleep suggestion. (Brain washing.) The Canadian govenment was happy to provide its’ unwarned citizens for the experiment, most of whom were rendered derilicts at best. Most drugs alone do no permanent physical damage, although they are readily stored in fat cells to be released in the adrenaline. (Brain damage from street drugs is caused by the cutting agents or absolute overdoses.) I don’t know if LSD was part of this, but that was the right time for it. The Canadians have settled many of the lawsuits.

    100,000 “Rabid adherents?” (More drugs?) I wonder if there were any lawsuits from them.

  8. Jari says: May 28, 200911:09 am

    Firebrand, I meant the ads in the last two scanned pages themselves, not the site ads…

  9. fred says: May 28, 200912:55 pm

    I guess in retrospect sleeping in class should be acceptable behavior

  10. Charlie says: May 28, 20091:05 pm

    Jari: Oh yeah, I noticed that when I scanned it, but forgot to mention it. This is actually fairly common in Mechanix Illustrated articles from around this time.

  11. George says: May 29, 20094:51 pm

    I tried it once using a reel-to-reel tape recorder plugged into an old GE clock radio — they used to have a coffee maker outlet on the back.

    It took a lot of fooling around to get things set up so the recorder would start without eating my hand-made continuous tape loop. By the time I got it working, I knew the lesson cold and didn’t bother to try it in my sleep. I can still rattle off the first 30 or so digits of Pi.

  12. Al Bear says: May 29, 200911:55 pm

    Hell! I would have had 86 PHD’s in everything! if I had started using that thing when I was younger 😉

  13. Firebrand38 says: May 30, 200910:53 am

    Only if it worked!


  14. dedsetmad says: May 31, 20096:36 pm

    This is a total con, perpetrated by the companies manufuct-ering these rubbish sleep learning tapes or cd’s, or whatever . I tried this very technique when a student 40 years ago, and after extensive testing I gave it away because it DID NOT WORK. Anyone who would actually spend money on this rubbish instead of trying it out for themselves has got to be a bigtime, goldplated dill.

  15. dedsetmad says: May 31, 20096:40 pm

    Oh, sorry for the d-post but I must add that on occasion this technique caused me on more than one occasion, to fall asleep in the very exams that I was studying for. Talk about self defeating ! ! ! !

  16. chithu says: June 2, 20094:29 am

    about that Mcgrath story u said’She was even able to read bits from a Spanish novel and magazines’.
    while she was only heearing how could she know how the spanish letters would be without seeing.

  17. saaid says: December 1, 20095:27 pm

    Dear sir

    iam really very interested to learn while iam sleep but
    I donot know exactly how i can do that ?

    can you learn me that please ?


  18. Toronto says: December 1, 20095:53 pm

    RE: Targeted ads. I’d be *very* skeptical about learning to use the “Supershop Model X” in my sleep. Even the Channel Lock pliers on the previous page could be painful.

  19. jayessell says: September 30, 20101:37 pm

    Sleep learning was also featured in the Disney movie
    “The Monkey’s Uncle.”

    It helped football (?) players maintain their grades
    so they could stay on the team.

    Also… it helped the test pilot of the experimental
    human-powered aircraft get over his fear of heigths.

    (Who was it who said they wern’t afraid of heigths,
    they were afraid of downths!)?

  20. Hunter says: May 15, 20119:44 pm

    For the Super Shop Model X Advertisement, I searched the address and their office is now a residential are. lol.

  21. saaid says: May 17, 20114:29 am

    Dear friend

    I tryed many times to use learning while you sleep but not any results please
    can you provide that is reaaly or not true
    lists to men whiche used it seccefully .


  22. denise says: October 27, 20115:08 am

    Quero comprar o sleep learning, how could I do?

  23. marzieh says: February 1, 201212:43 pm

    Hi, i am so interested in this topic .Could you explain how can measure learining while sleeping?
    which sympotoms are there that learning is happend while sleeping?
    I am MA student and i want to search about this hypothesis.
    with regards

  24. Jari says: February 1, 20121:31 pm

    Marzieh: Don’t waste your time, sleep learning has been debunked: http://en.wikipedia.org…

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