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September 1, 2022

Your Brain Is Always Listening

Even if you are sound asleep, your brain is always at work, listening to, making note of and interpreting sound. The listening brain performs like an orchestra of neurons that never stops encoding incoming sounds and even has what scientists call a "conductor." Learn more on NSF's "The Discovery Files."

Credit: National Science Foundation

Your Brain Is Always Listening

This is The Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Did you know that, even while you are sound asleep, your brain continues to listen to the sounds around you?

Some scientists believe this is a feature of the brain that alerts us to possible danger.

A new study revealed distinct differences in the way the brain processes sound while asleep, compared to when awake.

Funded in part by NSF, researchers at UCLA were seeking to understand the signals generated by the brain, in response to music and other sounds, during sleep versus waking hours.

The researchers monitored the brain activity of volunteer participants. They measured their brains' responses to both music and words, when the participants were awake and asleep.

During both states, the listening brain performs like an orchestra of neurons that never stops encoding incoming sounds.

Although researchers observed auditory responses in the sleeping brain were similar to those in a wakeful state, they found a key component was missing: "the conductor," the feedback signals from the higher regions of the brain that focus on, regulate and interpret incoming sounds when a participant was awake.

This discovery suggests the brain's feedback signals are essential to conscious sensory processing and could lead to better understanding of the role of "the conductor" and how people process sensory information in all modes.

It may also lead to new methods to improve our memory while we sleep.

Discover how the U.S. National Science Foundation is advancing research at And check out NSF's Discovery Files podcast, available wherever you get podcasts.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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