Category Archives: Abnormal Behaviors During Sleep

Learning While Asleep

Recently I was asked by a friend’s son if it were possible to learn while asleep. He had read about sleep helping with memory and wondered if he could tape some of his lectures and listen to them while asleep. I told him that is an interesting idea but that it does not work. However, as I explained to him, sleep does serve to improve our memories. We just can’t learn new information being presented while asleep.

There are three broad types of memories: Declarative memory, which can be expressed verbally; Procedural memory such as learning to ride a bike, drive a car, or play an instrument; and Emotional memory.

There are two main types of sleep: REM or dream sleep and Non-REM sleep which comprises the other stages of sleep including the most important, deep or delta sleep. They come on in cycles every 90 minutes. The Non-REM deep sleep prevails in the first half of the night, and REM sleep dominates during the second half of the night. Non-REM sleep is more important for absorbing declarative memory (factual) and REM sleep is essential in procedural and emotional memory.

During the process of memory consolidation, your brain uploads short term unstable packets of information plus experiences and then converts them to more stable and longer lasting memories. It also integrates them with prior memories. This process has been linked to the stages of sleep.

Accordingly, besides insuring that we get a good night’s sleep, is there anything else we can do to improve our memory? Several studies paired learning before sleep with either sounds or odors. When the subjects were re-exposed to these sounds or odors while asleep and during specific stages of sleep, they showed a significant improvement in memory retention when tested.

Other studies have shown that increasing deep sleep with the aid of a very low frequency direct current improved memory retention the following day. However, all of this is experimental and I would caution the reader to be skeptical of gadgets worn to bed that are claiming to improve your memory. The good news is that we are realizing the importance of sleep with regard to memory and I believe it won’t be long before we have the ability to improve memory.

ADHD-The Sleep Connection

There has been an astounding increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). In one study, the increase approached 800% in the past decade over the last. Is there something driving this or are we making the diagnosis too often?

We know that both childhood sleep apnea and insufficient sleep can present with symptoms indistinguishable from ADHD. These symptoms consist of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and an inability to pay attention. Because of the proliferation of computers, video games, iPhones, and televisions in our children’s bedrooms they are getting less sleep. In fact, a Finnish study published several years ago found that a sleep duration of between seven and eight hours or less in children aged seven to eight was a significant factor in predicting ADHD. In my own sleep practice, I am amazed by the number of caring parents that are unaware of just how much sleep children require. Actually, a child of eight years of age requires closer to 11 hours of sleep nightly. Deprived of this they become irritable, have difficulty sitting still, and can have a very hard time concentrating. Is it any wonder that they may be thought to have ADHD?

Sleep apnea is also very common in ADHD. In one study performed a few years ago, 28% of children referred to an ENT clinic for an adenotonsillectomy for sleep apnea had a diagnosis of ADHD. Interestingly, after the procedure, 50% no longer evidenced symptoms of ADHD after one year..

Finally, children with restless legs syndrome can present with symptoms that are hard to differentiate from ADHD. Many of these children have a hard time relating what they are feeling or are misdiagnosed as having “growing pains.” Their leg pain can deprive them of much needed sleep at night or make it impossible to sit still in class during the day. Is it any wonder that they are frequently diagnosed with ADHD?

The bottom line is that not all cases of ADHD can be attributed to sleep disorders. However, many are either caused or worsened by problems with sleep. It is our job as parents to be aware of our children’s sleep needs and sleep habits. If you have a child with ADHD, take the time to notice such things as snoring, an inability to fall or stay asleep , complaints of always feeling tired and fatigued, or frequent leg movements at rest or while asleep. In many instances, dealing with the underlying sleep problem may result in the avoidance or discontinuation of medications being used in the child with ADHD.


Parasomnias are undesirable behavioral or physiological events that occur during sleep, such as sleepwalking. One unusual parasomnia is referred to as sexsomnia. Due to embarrassment, it is rarely brought to the attention of physicians or other healthcare workers. Activities associated with sexsomnia may range from simple masturbation to vaginal and anal intercourse, being performed while asleep. It is frequently disturbing to the bed partner and can lead to relationship problems; if not addressed.

It is important to realize, that these behaviors are involuntary. In fact, in the majority of cases, they are at variance with the person’s usual wakeful sexual behaviors. Sexsomnia usually results in great embarrassment and mortification, on the part of the person perpetrating these acts. When they are informed of what has transpired, they usually respond with disbelief. This is because in most instances, there is complete amnesia for the act.

Our understanding of this disorder has improved remarkably over the last few years. We now know that sexsomnia is more common in those who evidence other parasomnias, such as sleepwalking and night terrors. We have discovered that sexsomnia can be precipitated by stress, alcohol, insufficient sleep and primary sleep disorders, such as Sleep Apnea. Most importantly, there are now excellent medical and behavioral therapies available for this disorder. It no longer needs to be hidden away; as the “thing we never talk about”. This is a medical disorder that can be successfully treated.