student life

Learning by dreaming

Every good student knows that he should learn complex theories for his exams by repeating them constantly over several months, even though a glimpse in the overcrowded libraries one night before the exams proves that most of us don’t actually do that. But who am I to judge right? Learning, as we students know it, is often boring and exhausting. First, you have to fight to get a spot in the library, then you have to successfully ignore all the coffee-break requests from your buddies and by the time you start getting productive, it is already time for your lunch. One could now argue that you can start working after your lunch break, but as we all know you’ll get sleepy after eating so you take a nap. And after a nap you need a coffee. And after your coffee-break at 4 o’clock there is barely any reason to open your laptop for two more lousy hours. This scene describes a typical problem faced by students all around the world. But what if I told you that there are other ways to learn?

You don’t have to sit at a table for hours to learn. Most athletes learn while doing the exact opposite. Through repeated execution of movements they gain knowledge and control over their bodies. This is the so-called physical practice (PP). Although it is the most common way for athletes to learn and improve their skills it is not the only way. Mental Practice (MP) is also a well-established part of the training of athletes. They visualize a certain situation and the related movement before they actually move (Suinn, 1997). Or how Jack Niklaus, one of the most successful golfers, would put it: «I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head» (Niklaus, 1974, p. 79). Since this kind of practice works without any physical movement you can do it anywhere and anytime, even in your dreams! Well, provided that you have control over them which is exactly the definition of lucid dreams. In this rare condition which occurs mostly in the REM-Phase of sleep, you know that you are dreaming. Not only does this allow you to move freely through the landscape of your subconscious, but you can also influence it. This basically means that you can go to bed and when you’re getting lucid, create your individual learning environment and start practicing. In 2016 Stumbrys, Erlacher and Schredl compared the outcome of this lucid dream practice (LDP) with PP, MP and a control group in a field experiment. 68 individuals were asked to memorize a sequence of five numbers by pressing four keys on a computer keyboard as quickly and accurately as possible. After that, they went to bed and all participants, except for the control group, trained this task in different ways during the night. The MP group by visualizing, the PP group by performing and the LDP group by dreaming. The morning after, they repeated this task and the results were compared to the data from last evening. And indeed, they all made significant progress compared to the control group. 

Learning by dreaming? This is literally a dream come true, right? Well there are a few points to consider before you hop in your bed to learn for the next exams. First of all, even though it seems possible to learn lucid dreaming, only 5% of the population has at least one lucid dream per week (Schredl & Erlacher, 2011). Secondly, there were no significant differences between the groups which indicates that LDP is not superior to the other forms of practice. And thirdly, you can only recreate something in your dreams if you have a memory of it. So, there is really no way around it, at some point you have to sit down and learn these psychological theories before you can recall them in your dreams. 

So, what is the conclusion on LDP? It is a unique technique to learn and improve skills while sleeping. Particularly people who want to practice under special circumstances have the possibility to create a perfect learning environment without putting others or yourself at risk (e.g. surgeons, athletes etc.). Nevertheless, I doubt that you’ll pass next semester without some old-fashioned learning session in your local library. But now you have at least a good excuse for your next visit at the sleep room in the university. When your colleagues give you a judging look because you leave the table to take a nap, just tell them you will continue learning in your dreams.

Bibliography :
  • Niklaus, J. (1974). Golf my way. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
  • Schredl, M., & Erlacher, D. (2011). Frequency of lucid dreaming in a representative German sample. Perceptual and motor skills112(1), 104-108.
  • Stumbrys, T., Erlacher, D., & Schredl, M. (2016). Effectiveness of motor practice in lucid dreams: A comparison with physical and mental practice. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(1), 27-34.
  • Suinn, R. M. (1997). Mental practice in sport psychology: where have we been, where do we go?. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice4(3), 189-207.
Featured image :
  • Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, (2004, December 12). Fat man and little boy. Giphy.

Author : Max Frutiger