Why ‘sleeping on it’ is such a brain boost for learning & creativity

Why ‘sleeping on it’ is such a brain boost for learning & creativity

Sleep can boost your memory and creativity, make you slimmer and more attractive, ward off colds and flu, lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, protect you from cancer and dementia, extend your life expectancy and make you feel happier, less anxious and depressed – and it’s totally natural, completely free and available to us all (except perhaps for new parents). No drug or ‘skill-pill’ you could ever buy could have such a dramatic effect on your mental and physical well-being, yet we all underestimate the power of sleep on both long-term health and our daily cognitive function.

Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” explains how sleep is a finely tuned and highly complex evolutionary process that is essential to keep our metabolic, cardiovascular, reproductive and immune systems in balance, and how a lack of it has dramatic and immediate consequences on our learning, problem-solving ability and emotional rationality.

The stages of Sleep

Many of us are familiar with how sleep is characterised by different stages in levels of brain activity and an appearance of being in a lighter or deeper sleep.  Each stage of sleep from REM (Rapid Eye Movement), light non-REM, deep non-REM, and dreaming all benefit the brain in different ways so losing out on of any one of them will impact our brain’s ability to function at full capacity.

The value of our dreams

Have you ever wondered why things so often do seem better in the morning, or why ‘sleeping on it’ and reviewing a situation in the cold light of day provides a solution to a problem that seemed insurmountable the day before?

We have always had a fascination with dreams and their meaning, but rather than act as a channel for divine intervention they do in fact play a very important part in enhancing our cognitive and emotional function. The four main areas that our dreams focus on are:

·        Providing overnight therapy – on problems and raw emotions that left unprocessed would interfere with our rationality and rest.

·        Decoding emotion – essential for understanding complex human relationships.

·        Promoting problem-solving – on complicated practical logistics.

·        Incubating creativity – for innovation, an essential ingredient to ‘progress’ in every domain of human and organisational accomplishment.  

If this isn’t motivating enough to hit the sack, some impressive strokes of genius have been conceived from a dream. In 1869 the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, obsessed with organising all the chemical elements in the universe, awoke from a dream where all the swirling elements formed a grid that became the periodic table. Mary Shelley awoke from a frightening dreamscape in which the narrative for her masterpiece Frankenstein was born. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones (who used to sleep with his guitar and a tape player next to the bed) awoke to find the tape player had run through to the end. When he played it back he found he had composed the hit (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction in his sleep.

REM and our motor memory

REM sleep is a stage of sleep that happens at intervals throughout the night and is characterised by more dreaming, more movement and a faster pulse and breathing. Typically accounting for 20-25% of total sleep in adults, one of the main functions of REM sleep is to help us forget, decluttering the erroneous information we don’t need and clearing space for that which we do – an essential function for priming us to learn.

Another function of REM sleep is to cement motor memory and skill. This could be anything from playing the piano, riding a bike, or learning how to perform a surgical procedure. This stage of sleep moves memories from short term to automated movement routines so that they become second nature. Specifically, the most intense REM stages tend to occur during the last 2 hours of an 8-hour sleep. Sleeping for less than 8 hours and especially less than 6 hours has a devastating effect on motor memory and performance.

NREM Sleep on learning and memory

Non-REM sleep (NREM) is the dreamless sleep characterised by slowed breathing and heart rate when we are most deeply asleep. During this stage of sleep the brain is busy writing data from our short-term memory store (the hippocampus) to the hard drive or long-term memory store in the brain (the cortex). This prepares the brain for learning and helps cement new memories preventing you from forgetting what you have learned.

So, there’s some truth in the advice to put your revision cards under your pillow so that the knowledge will sink into your head overnight. With the caveat that you’ve actually read your revision cards, the act of sleeping will help cement those new facts you’ve learned, improving your recall the next morning. However, what is often overlooked is the importance of sleep the night before learning, which refreshes our ability to make new memories and our ability to learn.

It’s been found that the concentration of NREM sleep spindle activity is particularly rich in the late morning hours sandwiched between REM sleep. This has huge implications, not only for the modern workforce waking early to commute to work, but also for our children who are starting the school day not best prepared to learn. Rising too early is continually short changing the brain on these last few hours of sleep and depriving it of these restorative learning benefits.

For a natural memory and creativity boost, to help solve those complex problems, to encourage innovative solutions and prime yourself to learn - simply try getting a good night’s sleep and it will all seem better in the morning.

For more information on how to get a good night’s sleep check out the NIH tips here.


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