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Sleep for Success: Creativity and the Neuroscience of Sleep

Sleeping on a problem helps you find better solutions. Really.

You can train yourself to sleep strategically

I've gotten into the habit lately of waking up with friends and collaborators. It's not what you think. These helpers are the good ideas that come to me in the middle of the night or—if I'm lucky—first thing in the morning. I've long believed there was value in the expression, "let's sleep on it." Now and again, I've woken up to an old idea that had been buried away in my unconscious. Sometimes I've awakened with a new perspective on a problem that was bugging me the day before. Or suddenly, I've been able to spit out a name that had recently been on the tip of my tongue. But now that I've reviewed some of the very recent research on what goes on in the brain during sleep, I'm ready to take much better advantage of my sleep-induced ideas.

For years, scientists thought that the function of sleep was merely to rest the body and mind, but recent research suggests that sleep is essential for both learning and creativity.[1] It's no surprise that people who are well rested learn better and are more creative. What is new, and what I discovered in writing Conquer CyberOverload, is the value of sleeping after learning something or during a break in trying to solve a problem. Studies have looked at the benefits of taking naps as well as sleeping through the night.[2]

During sleep, rat's brains (and yours) practice what they're recently learned.

Researchers have discovered that your brain becomes very active when you sleep, and that during certain phases of sleep, your brain becomes even more active if you've just learned something new. In an early study that identified this process [3], rats were hooked up to measure the electrical activity of their brains while they learned a maze. Later, while the rats were sleeping, the researchers observed that their brains were emitting the same pattern of activity they had emitted during maze learning. Apparently, the rats' brains were "re-running" the maze in their sleep and using this time to consolidate their memories of what they had learned.

The brain relaxes its tight focus just before insight occurs

This same phenomenon has been observed in human learning.[4,5] In other words, if you learn something and then sleep on it, what you've learned becomes clearer just as a function of sleeping. But what's even more interesting is that sleeping on a problem helps people find better solutions. In a study titled "Sleep Inspires Insight,"[6] participants were given puzzles that involved finding the final number to complete a series of digits. The way they were trained to solve the puzzle was to compare every two-digit pair in the series. What they were not told was that there was a shortcut that allowed people to identify the solution after only two steps. Participants performed three trials of the puzzle and then were given an eight-hour break before returning for ten more trials. Some of them slept during the break and some did not. The people who slept between the two sessions were twice as likely as the others to discover the easier way to solve the problem. According to the researchers, sleeping on a problem apparently allows for a restructuring of the brain connections, "setting the stage for the emergence of insight."

Other research also relates to my helpful nighttime visitors. Researchers looking inside the brain while people solve insight problems have noted that the areas of the brain that become active first are focused in a small area. But after a period of tight focus on the problem and just before the aha! moment occurs, they observe a state of brain relaxation, which loosens the tight focus and makes the brain more likely to make new and distant connections between previously unrelated areas. Relaxing the brain's focus then, seems to be essential for insight.

So how does this relate to the ideas that come in the night? The neuroscience would suggest that while I'm sleeping, my brain is actively trying to make sense of what I've been working on and integrating it into the memory storage of what else I already know. How can we take advantage of the brain's overnight labor? In my next post, I'll talk about how this works for me in practice, and how you can use this knowledge to sleep strategically to harness your creative potential.

NEXT POST: Strategic Sleeping: Snooze and Release Your Muse

[1] Walker, M. P., & Stickgold, R. (2006). Sleep, memory, and plasticity. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 139152.

[2] Brain researcher John Medina suggests that businesses should encourage mid-day naps to promote better problem solving: Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Pear Press.

[3] Ji, D., & Wilson, M. A. (2007). Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep. Nature neuroscience, 10, 100-107.

[4] Mednick, S. C., Cai, D. J., Kanady, J., & Drummond, S. P. A. (2008). Comparing the benefits of caffeine, naps, and placebo on verbal, motor and perceptual memory. Behavioural brain research. 193, 79-86.

[5] Peigneux, P., Laureys, S., Fuchs, S., et al. (2004). Are spatial memories strengthened in the human hippocampus during slow wave sleep? Neuron, 44, 535-545.

[6] Wagner, U., Gais, S., Haider, H., Verleger, R., & Born, J. (2004). Sleep inspires insight. Nature, 427, 352-355.

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