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“Sleep is the best meditation.” — Dalai Lama

Well yes…sleep is problem-solving. After all, the night brings advice: Did Grandma ever tell you that? Well, scientists have scientifically demonstrated this advice based on popular wisdom is true.

For a study published in Psychological Science, the psychology scholars at Northwestern University assigned 57 people problems to solve, each associated with a different sound. During the night, while the participants slept, half of the sounds related to the problems, that had not yet been solved, were reproduced; those sounds reactivated the memory of the questions to solve. The next morning, participants were able to correctly answer 31.7% of the problems whose sounds had been played back during sleep (and which they were encouraged to remember while they slept), compared to 20.5% of the others: an improvement of 55%.

The conclusion the researchers have come to is that the problems that are reworked while you sleep do become less complicated to resolve when the morning comes.

In short, sleep can reorganize information to facilitate problem-solving.

How does the brain solve problems while you sleep?


Sleep, both REM and non-REM, helps creative thinking to solve problems, as if it had to complete a puzzle, putting the pieces in the right position until a clear picture is formed.

The influence of sleep on creative thinking seems to have been established, although the mechanism was not precise yet. Scientists at Cardiff University have studied the way REM sleep and non-REM sleep work together to help us solve everyday problems. They have different but complementary functions.

The sleeping brain goes through a cycle of non-REM and REM sleep every 90 minutes or so. Throughout one or more nights, the hippocampus and cortex repeatedly synchronize and disconnect, and this sequence of abstraction and connection is repetitive.

When we fall asleep, we enter into non-REM sleep, which includes a lighter phase extended for most of the night, plus a phase of deep sleep, in which millions of neurons are simultaneously active. In this phase, we find it more challenging to wake up, and if it happens, we feel particularly disturbed.

Memories stored by the hippocampus are reproduced during non-REM sleep and, when we detect similarities between them, this information is stored in the cortex. Because the hippocampus and cortex are in close communication during this stage, scientists think that the hippocampus somehow controls what is reproduced. This area of the brain prefers to conceive similar or thematically related elements and encourages us to find these connections and use them to create patterns.

In REM sleep (the phase accompanied by dreams), hippocampus and cortex do not seem to cooperate: both are in an extremely flexible state, in which new neural connections can be formed or in which those present can be strengthened or weakened. If in the previous phase the neurons worked as in a “chorus”, in this phase there is a real cacophony, in which, however, we can detect some unexpectedly pleasant chords.

Penny Lewis, professor at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, says: “Suppose we give you a puzzle where you have all the information you need to solve it, but you can’t because you’re stuck. You might think that you already have all the memories you need, but you have to put them together, creating connections between them, integrating aspects that you are not integrating”.

This kind of renovation happens while we sleep.

As different and complementary, non-REM sleep helps to organize information into useful categories, while REM sleep allows you to go beyond these categories by creating unexpected connections. During REM sleep, on the other hand, the hippocampus and cortex do not seem synchronized. Therefore, the Lewis team assumes that the cortex at that stage is free to reproduce memories in any combination, regardless of whether they are similar. We create surprising connections.

Sleep and creativity


Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

“Even a soul submerged in sleep is hard at work and helps make something of the world.” — Heraclitus

If the scientific evidence has not yet convinced you, here are some anecdotes:

  • Otto Loewi, a German physiologist, won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1936 for his work on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. He discovered in a dream how to prove his theory.
  • Paul McCartney figured out the melody for the song “Yesterday” in a dream.
  • Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said that the inspiration for the lyrics to the song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” came to him in his sleep.
  • The chemist Dimitri Mendeleev dreamed of his periodic table of elements.
  • Stephen King, in his On Writing, states “In writing and sleeping we learn to interrupt physical activity while at the same time encouraging the mind to detach itself from the intellectual routine of our daily lives.

Thus, breaking away from the routine is essential to give the brain a chance to create something new.

They are all very inspiring models, all the more reason to emulate them by going to sleep regularly, especially when we are under stress to solve our problems. I’ll leave you five tricks to sleep well:

  1. Regularity Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including on weekends or holidays: it helps to strengthen the sleep-wake cycle.
  2. Diet Do not go to bed neither too full nor too hungry, avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol: malfunction of the organs affects the sleep.
  3. Ritual Create a ritual before going to sleep, a shower or a book or a herbal tea: the body understands that it’s time to relax.
  4. Comfort Sleep in a tidy, clean, well-ventilated room: this would be ideal, but in reality, everyone has their preferences (large bed, small bed, cold room, warm room), the important thing is to feel comfortable.
  5. Exercise Regular physical activity helps you fall asleep faster and allows you to enjoy a deeper sleep, but avoid training in the evening or adrenaline will be an obstacle to relaxation.

I’m sure the moms who are reading this article have a lot of things to object! Oh, how I understand you! I’m a mom, too, of twins! Indeed, for this topic, I have enough material for another article!

For everyone else, my advice is inspired by Mesut Barazany:

“Your future depends on your dreams, so go to sleep.” — Mesut Barazany

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