Learning Lab

Getting into the Nitty-Gritty of Sleep

By Amy Brann

Thinking Whilst Sleeping

It’s that familiar feeling. You have been working on finding a solution all day. Trying to get to the root of the problem to no avail. Still stuck on one last elusive piece of the puzzle. So you give up, go to sleep and hope for better luck in the morning.

And hey presto, the answer materializes. It comes to you in the middle of the night. Or maybe whilst standing in the shower the next morning.

The fact that sleep helps you generate creative solutions to a problem is nothing new. Many scientific studies have reinforced this common occurrence. But what scientists haven’t understood, until more recently, is how it might happen.

In other words, what’s going on inside your brain when you are asleep which allows you to have this post-slumber eureka moment?

Getting into the nitty-gritty of sleep

Sleep remains one of the last frontiers of brain functioning. Many theories suggest plausible functions and benefits, but the nitty-gritty of what the brain is actually up to proves difficult to confirm.

So what do we know?

Well, firstly, we know that the brain “replays” many of the day’s events during your sleep. In fact, studies have shown that the same neurons that were activated in the day then become re-activated during the night, often following the same sequence of activation.

This process is thought to be necessary for consolidating and reinforcing your memories from the day, extracting the gist, and integrating them into your existing knowledge. It is something that takes place during what’s called NREM sleep – or non-rapid eye movement sleep – which is also called slow-wave or deep sleep.

Adding some randomness

But in addition to this NREM sleep, you also have REM sleep – rapid eye movement sleep – which is most commonly associated with the phenomenon of dreaming. In contrast to NREM sleep, REM sleep not only replays some of the day’s events but also reignites more remote (and sometimes random) thoughts which are buried deeper in your memory.

Importantly, REM sleep also seems to connect some of these more remote thoughts to the memories of the day just gone, especially when they share some related content.

And whilst some researchers have previously suggested that it is NREM sleep that is important for creativity, other research had proposed that it is REM which is important.

This new theory suggests that, as is often the case with neuroscience, both are important. And it is the way that they work together which is key.

Mixing it up

In other words, it is the alternating night-time cycles of NREM and REM sleep which help to sufficiently juggle up your thoughts to generate the creative insights that pop into your mind after a good night’s sleep. Helping you to stop thinking along well-trodden mental pathways and getting you out of that mental rut. And all why you are fast sleep.

Sleep on it

And this is why it isn’t productive to stay up late trying to solve that problem. And why instead you should go to bed and have another go at it in the morning.

Being able to work on something over consecutive days, with multiple periods of sleep in between, rather than trying to complete something in one sitting (where time allows), is also a particularly effective way of maximising your brain’s creative potential.

Giving your brain the opportunity to “sleep on it”.

Thinking day and night.

There are many good health reasons why you should get a good nights sleep. But your brain is also doing some amazing things while you are asleep (and there are likely to be others that still haven’t been discovered yet).

It is often easy to think that our “thinking” takes play during the day whilst we are awake, and our sleep is there to help us to recover from a busy day. But “thinking” also takes place during the night whilst we are asleep. We are just too busy sleeping to realise it.

So to come up with your best thoughts and ideas, or to solve problems and make the right strategic decisions, you don’t just need to make sure you build in enough thinking time in the day, you also need to make sure you give yourself sufficient “sleep-thinking” time as well.

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