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"Human beings hardly ever learn from the experience of others. They learn; when they do, which isn't often, on their own, the hard way."
- Robert Heinlein

Hypnopædia (Sleep-Teaching)  
  The idea that a person can learn explicit subject matter while sleeping.  

People have long used expressions like "I'll sleep on it" or "I'll consult the pillow" to express the notion that some sort of learning occurs during sleep.

While the child was asleep, a broadcast programme from London suddenly started to come through; and the next morning, to the astonishment of his crash and crash (the more daring of the boys ventured to grin at one another), Little Reuben woke up repeating word for word a long lecture by that curious old writer ("one of the very few whose works have been permitted to come down to us"), George Bernard Shaw, who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius. To Little Reuben's wink and snigger, this lecture was, of course, perfectly incomprehensible and, imagining that their child had suddenly gone mad, they sent for a doctor. He, fortunately, understood English, recognized the discourse as that which Shaw had broadcasted the previous evening, realized the significance of what had happened, and sent a letter to the medical press about it. "The principle of sleep-teaching, or hypnopædia, had been discovered." The D.H.C. made an impressive pause. The principle had been discovered; but many, many years were to elapse before that principle was usefully applied.
From Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.
Published by Unknown in 1932
Additional resources -

The idea of using some sort of technology to play back useful materials to make better use of sleep dates to the late nineteenth century, when the phonograph was developed.

Although there have been a few formal studies done in the 1950's and 1960's, sleep-learning has never really taken off.

The earliest mention in sf (as far as I know) on the subject of sleep teaching is way back in Hugo Gernsback's 1911 classic Ralph 124c 41 + - see the entry for hypnobioscope.

Thanks to Alex Mair for contributing this item.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Brave New World
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