The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Self Development
role of sleep, acquisition, forgetting, formation of memory, remembering
By: Florian Osswald, December 2016, Journal of the Pedagogical Section No. 58 Michaelmas

Given the Night – Part I

I would like to introduce a short exercise here which is based on a lecture held by Rudolf Steiner on October 10th, 1918 (1). It is a kind of retrospective exercise which includes the following steps: Shortly after waking up in the morning, pause for a moment for a brief review of the morning, the night and the evening. Imagine yourself going back in time to the moment when you woke up. Perhaps you can see yourself getting dressed, cleaning your teeth, pushing the duvet back or opening a window. Go back one more step. Now you meet a kind of threshold. Keep going backwards 'into the night' as it were. Perhaps you remember a dream. Usually, we do not have any memory of our sleep, it happens subconsciously. Keep going backwards until you arrive at the moment of falling asleep. Which were your last thoughts, your last feelings before falling asleep? Keep going backwards into the evening for a few more moments into the evening and then stop the exercise.


In this small exercise, which should not take up much time, there are some treasures hidden which I would like to mention.


Falling Asleep and Waking Up

Both falling asleep and waking up are moments of crossing a 'threshold of consciousness'. It seems that this threshold is fairly insignificant for an adult. We don't normally pay much attention to it, but people who have children understand the importance of these moments. Parents read their children a bedtime story or listen patiently to what the children tell them about their day. In the morning, parents wake their children gently and maybe sing a little for them. However, as we get older we become more and more careless and do not develop any morning or evening rituals for adults. At night, we drop into bed, as tired as dogs, and in the morning we are savagely woken up by the sound of the alarm clock.


The exercise described above makes us more aware of the transitions from the conscious to the unconscious when falling asleep and from the unconscious to the conscious when waking up. And so, the time in-between takes on a different meaning. We start to understand that those two thresholds, which seem separated by our sleep, are connected like the banks of a river. In the evening we leave the safe ground of our waking life and dip our feet gently into the river. We are entering a new element; we become aware of the water as a new element. We realise that we have to swim in it and feel the uncertainty of something new. New questions arise in us: Will I be able to swim safely? Will I reach the other side of the river? How deep is the water? And as with every exercise, sooner or later, the preparation becomes an important issue.



As we start a project, we ask ourselves if our preparation has been sufficient. How far we venture into unknown territory depends on the preparation. Many adventures are abandoned prematurely because of a lack of stamina or because of the wrong attitude. The same is true when it comes to spiritual research. Many people start to do exercises without the right kind of preparation.


How can we create the necessary preconditions for successful exercises? What happens when we fall asleep? We enter from consciousness into unconsciousness, similar to to the execution of a particular movement. In movement, a conscious impulse joins up with unconscious processes in our body. Here, exercises which mirror the process of the disappearance of a conscious decision into an activity have proven to be helpful. Everything which strengthens volition, which is faintly similar to falling asleep, is beneficial.


When it comes to waking up, however, we may find that the opposite is true. As we wake up, something appears or is made to appear; it is brought into consciousness. Every kind of thinking is a slight process of waking up. Therefore, a conscious approach to thinking, an intensifying of the thinking process can be helpful in this area.


Exercise and Education – The Night Side of Learning

Steiner's educational impulse has many particularities. One of them is the importance of forgetting. When scrutinizing learning, we usually focus on remembering and do not pay much attention to its sibling, the process of forgetting. The last step in the process of 'acquisition – forgetting – formation of memory – remembering' indicates success or failure and can be measured. However, acquired knowledge will be forgotten. It disappears so to speak into the night, in which something grows which subsequently becomes the foundation for remembering. 'Remembering', the final stage, depends on a variety of factors. Educational research is well aware of this fact and acknowledges the subconscious part of the process. In the last few decades, neurobiological research has paid particular attention to the role of sleep and its findings are highly interesting. Jenkins and Dallenbach published the first findings in 1924 (2), and research into the role of sleep has continued ever since, as studies of Spitzer (3) and Nissen (4) show.


The exercise suggested above helps us to develop an individual approach to falling asleep, to waking up and to the night. At night, we forget everything, or to put it in a different way, we do not remember what happens during sleep, we do not retain it. Nevertheless, some changes do occur in our memory. This is where our adventure starts because many people realize that their memory does change in the course of the night. What can happen is that people practise a piece of music or a poem and realize in the morning that they remember it better than the night before. Some people experience that they suddenly have an answer to a question in the morning.


If we approach learning in this way, holistically, we start to ask some new questions: How can we take the night into consideration when designing our lessons? How can the learners digest our lessons in a healthy way? Do particular ways of teaching disturb the learner in his sleep? In which form does the lesson content reappear and how can the learner individualise it?


Further, the transitions from sleep to wakefulness and from wakefulness to sleep are mysteries, but to study them requires very little extra effort. They happen in any case, we only pay them a little extra attention if we do the exercise described above. Whatever we may notice does not have to be analysed directly, we do not have to have any kind of “success”. However, with increased mindfulness we lay the foundations for an experience which has the potential to slowly grow.


In part 2 we will explore further aspects of the exercise. Enjoy the journey of discovery!


Florian Osswald, born in Switzerland, he first studied process engineering. After training as a curative teacher in a Camphill organisaton in Scotland, he attended the teacher training seminar in Dornach. He worked as an upper school science and mathematics teacher at the Bern Rudolf Steiner School for 24 years and has been internationally active as a pedagogical advisor. Since 2011, Florian Osswald has been leading the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach together with Claus-Peter Röh.


Translated by Karin Smith 



(1) Steiner, R.: Die Ergänzung heutiger Wissenschaften durch Anthroposophie. Zürich, October 10th, 1918. GA 73. (only in German)

(2) Jenkins, J.C. & Dallenbach, K.M.: Obliviscence during sleep and waking. American Journal of Psychology, 35, pp. 605-612. 1924.

(3) Spitzer, M.: Lernen. Gehirnforschung und die Schule des Lebens. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg. 2007. (No English Translation available)

(4) Nissen, C.: Sleep recalibrates homeostatic and associative synaptic plasticity in the human cortex. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12455. August 2016.

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