We all know the benefits of a good night’s rest. Sleep helps us learn, recharges our body for the next day and keeping a regular sleep schedule is essential to overall health.

Take learning. Scientists already know getting sleep is essential to retaining memories. Without it, our brain clicks off and refuses to retain new information. Now, what if we could undo some of the terrible stereotypes and behaviors we have picked up along the way?

Gender stereotypes. Racism. Ethnic stereotypes. Even age stereotypes. Sure, we may never admit to being a racist or sexist, but study after study show our implicit biases pop up in everyday reactions to people and situations.

Researchers at Northwestern University found that adding sleep to the retraining sessions can remove the biases we all hold.

Sure, you can unlearn various stereotypes through normal training sessions with psychologists. But, the research psychologists at Northwestern found the results can be fleeting.

We live in an age of too much noise. A simple news report or an interaction with a person that supports a long-held bias can undo any work to fix the issue.

That’s where sleep comes in. The study, published in Science, adds sleep to the retraining, and keeps the retraining going through a subject’s sleep with subliminal cues.

Cool, you can unlearn racism through sleep. How about we do the same for learning any subject? Talk about productivity. Wake up and you know a foreign language.

Study Breakdown

Participants were set in front of a monitor and a keyboard to score the implicit bias. Images were flashed on the screen, and the volunteers were asked to react to the paired image and words.

Stimuli that fit prevailing racial and gender stereotypes can be processed faster. Those with a higher implicit bias score will also react faster to the images.

Examples of image and word pairings included an African American person’s face and the word ‘bad.’ Another was a man’s face and the word ‘science.’ The former being an example of racial stereotypes while the latter is gender stereotyping.

unlearning racism sleep

The participant’s implicit bias would also increase if he/she was slow to react to pairings of a woman’s face and ‘science,’ or and African American’s face and ‘good.’

I’d hate to be the random guy who goes in claiming he’s not racist and ends up profusely apologizing to the research team. Hello, awkward silence…

Once the baseline scores were recorded, the participants were then administered a test designed to reverse any biases. The subjects were directed to hit a designated key on image and word pairings designed to reverse their stereotypes.

Responses that were quick and accurate were met with one of two distinctive tones – one for reversing gender biases and the other for racial stereotypes. Once the 30-minute training session was complete, it was nap time.

For 90 minutes, each participant slept with a white noise generator. Using the two audio cues from the training session, half the group received the gender bias cue while the other half received the racial bias cue.


After the 90-minute nap, the participants were tested again. Those receiving the gender bias cue showed the training worked. Tested a week later, participants showed the training against gender bias had stuck, though racial biases had returned to their baseline score.

For the participants receiving the racial bias cue, the results were the same. The training stuck through the week though the gender bias scores returned to their baseline.

What Does it Mean?

Before you take an Ambien and download a white noise generator, understand that unlearning strongly held beliefs is challenging.

What the study does show is that we can harness the power of sleep and subliminal cues through sleep to help unseat deeply held beliefs. Also, the study was short-term. Sure, the results stuck after a week. But, what about at a month, year and 10-year timeframes? What happens then? Should the training be continuous and self-directed? Tons of questions, but a promising study.

More research will have to be done before we see this in a clinical setting. But, you can bet there are going to be apps popping up to conduct this type of social experiment.

Read the complete study in the journal Science. It’s definitely thought-provoking.


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