Something great is on the horizon, and you can be a part of it. The idea has been discussed for a long time, but amazingly, there is no research to show whether or not it is possible. I am talking about learning while you sleep. It is possible.
More specifically, I should say that your brain can receive the effects of practice while you sleep. In recent research, sounds were paired with a spacial task. Those same sounds were replayed to experimental subjects during slow-wave sleep (deep sleep; stages 3 and 4). They remembered the spacial orientation of the objects in the task significantly better than than the control group, who slept just as long but did not have the sounds replayed to them during sleep.
The first thing that crossed my mind when I saw this was, "this needs to be done with the olfactory sense - if sounds work, smell will definitely work." Very recently, the same research team did just that. The task was different than in the first experiment, but sure enough, the repetition during slow-wave sleep of the smell administered during the task led to increased performance of the task on the after-sleep trial.
This is truly amazing stuff. The implications are huge. Soon, I will be volunteering to assist a neuroscientist specializing in sleep and memory. This is not my area of expertise (yet), so I will be learning the ropes of sleep research while voraciously studying the brain and memory. It should not be too long before I propose my own design and we carry out the experiment that I'm dying to do.
We can use these findings as a springboard to figuring out how to enhance our vocabularies while we sleep. Someone WILL succeed in this endeavor, and it won't be long until that happens. I will succeed, I think, but I may not be first. That doesn't matter. What matters is designing an experiment just right - so the effects of the sleep-practice will be most visible. The following are some notes on such an experiment:
(I do not have access to masks and gases, so I will work with sound.)
1)What should the sound be? Is playing a recording of someone saying the actual word the best option? Perhaps, if the word is an obscure synonym for "dog," then a dog barking might be better than the word being read. If the word being read sounds like the best option, would it be more effective if the subject, while studying the word, read it aloud into a tape recorder, so his own voice could be replayed while he slept?
2a)What words should we choose? They must be so obscure that not a single one of the subjects knows even one of them. Thus, a foreign language is an option. However, a foreign language that one is unfamiliar with can appear so unfamiliar upon first sight that it may be very hard to learn. English is probably better, because the appearance of the words, and the phonemes within them, strike a familiar tone. If a subject wouldn't learn the words well after two exposures, (the sleep-practice is after all merely a second exposure, and it is probably weaker than an exposure while awake), then both the control and the experimental group will have very low scores, and thus there will be little variability in the scores. With so little variability, the results wouldn't be significant. Here, the number of words comes into play. If there are only ten words, there is little room to prove that real improvement has occurred because all of the subjects will learn a very high percentage of them. Thus, the balance of the number of new words, as well as the difficulty of learning those words, is of paramount importance.
2b) My best suggestion for balancing these factors would be to have a very large amount of words that could each correspond to a one-word definition. Any single word would thus be easy to learn, and a one-word definition is so simple that a second-exposure would certainly increase the amount of words recalled. However, the sheer amount of words ensures some amount of error on the part of the subject.
3) The words should be nouns accompanied by a picture. Nouns are easiest for a child to learn. They are most basic, and correspond most directly to photographs.
4) Since learning novel vocabulary is so hard after a single session, we must employ techniques such as the above to increase recall. However, if methods unrelated to repeatable sound are used, such as accompanying pictures, they should not be so effective that the effects of the sleep-practice are overshadowed. Ideally, the most effective technique used for remembering the words should be the technique that involves a repeatable sound. That would make the practice most valuable.
5) The best idea I have to accomplish this is to accompany each word with a relevant, comedic video with a terse sentence describing the word. The content of the sentence should be memorable, and I stress that the sentence must be very short - able to be uttered within 3 seconds maximum. For instance, I could film myself just bawling, tears streaming down my face, while the word on his current flashcard is "lachrymose," and I would just say in a loud, yet strained, lugubrious tone, "I'm so lachrymose!!!" Maybe then he could write on a piece of paper, "Lachrymose means weepy or crying," and possibly write a sentence of his own. Maybe that 5-second movie could be shown before and after he writes his sentences.
Notice I have a hell of a lot of ideas, but not enough knowledge to tell which ones are good. You don't need the apposite knowledge to offer any ideas either. I am going to conduct this experiment after learning the ropes and writing a lit review; this is not just a flight of fancy. Anything you say will be taken into serious consideration and combined with what I learn. Brainstorming has always been useful for me, so do your worst.