To test whether humans can encode words during sleep we played everyday words to men while they were napping and assessed priming from sleep-played words following waking. Words were presented during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Priming was assessed using a semantic and a perceptual priming test. These tests measured differences in the processing of words that had been or had not been played during sleep. Synonyms to sleep-played words were the targets in the semantic priming test that tapped the meaning of sleep-played words. All men responded to sleep-played words by producing up-states in their electroencephalogram. Up-states are NREM sleep-specific phases of briefly increased neuronal excitability. The word-evoked up-states might have promoted word processing during sleep. Yet, the mean performance in the priming tests administered following sleep was at chance level, which suggests that participants as a group failed to show priming following sleep. However, performance in the two priming tests was positively correlated to each other and to the magnitude of the word-evoked up-states. Hence, the larger a participant's word-evoked up-states, the larger his perceptual and semantic priming. Those participants who scored high on all variables must have encoded words during sleep. We conclude that some humans are able to encode words during sleep, but more research is needed to pin down the factors that modulate this ability.
Keywords: NREM sleep; implicit; memory; semantic priming; slow-oscillations; unconscious.