Talking in your sleep might be annoying, but listening may yet prove useful. Researchers have shown that sleeping brains not only recognise words, but can also categorise them and respond in a previously defined way. This could one day help us learn more efficiently.
Scientists led by Sid Kouider of CNRS, France’s National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, recorded brain signals from awake people as they classified spoken words as either animals or objects. Participants pushed a button with their right hand when they heard an animal name, for instance, and a button with their left hand for objects.
After nodding off, the participants heard a different set of words, and their brains continued sorting the words into their proper categories, EEG recordings revealed. When participants heard “horse,” their brain activity looked as if they were preparing the right hand, not the left, to hit a button.
By describing one way in which the brain stays vigilant during sleep, the results may help explain how meaningful sounds, such as a baby crying or a spoken name, creep unconsciously into the slumbering mind and wake a person more readily than other sounds.