Here’s How the Brain Solves your Problems while You Sleep
A bit like the pieces of a puzzle that slowly find their correct position, providing a unique and understandable image, in the same way, both REM and non-REM sleep helps creative thinking to solve problems.
This fascinating aspect of sleep has been investigated by Cardiff University scientists who have studied the way in which REM and non-REM sleep work together to help us solve everyday problems.
The influence of sleep for creative thinking seems to have been ascertained, even if the role has not yet been understood and which stage is useful in this sense. And this is what the British researchers have tried to discover, who have developed a theory to explain how REM sleep and cannot facilitate the resolution of creative problems in different but complementary ways.
The sleeping brain goes through a non-REM and REM sleep cycle every 90 minutes or so. Over the course of one or more nights, the hippocampus and the cortex are repeatedly synchronized and decoupled, and this sequence of abstraction and connection is repeated.
The memories stored by the hippocampus are reproduced during non-REM sleep and, when we find similarities between them, this information is stored in the cortex. Since the hippocampus and cortex are in close communication during this stage, Lewis and his co-authors think that the hippocampus controls in some way what is being reproduced. This area of the brain prefers to reproduce similar or thematically linked elements and encourages us to find these connections and use them to create patterns.
“Suppose you take a puzzle where you have all the information needed to solve it, but you can not because you’re stuck”, says the lead author Penny Lewis, professor at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University. “You may think that you already have all the memories you need, but you have to put them together, creating links between them, integrating aspects that you are not integrating”
According to the scientists, this type of restructuring often takes place while we sleep, so Lewis and his co-authors have drawn on the scientific literature on the subject, combining it with physiological and behavioral data, with the aim of creating a model of what could happen during each phase of the sleep.
Based on what has been discovered, non-REM sleep helps organize information into useful categories, while REM 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 to be synchronized.
Thus, Lewis’s team hypothesizes that the cortex at that stage is free to reproduce memories in any combination, regardless of whether they are similar. In fact, surprising connections are created.
To explain it simply, scientists at Cardiff University took Earnest Rutherford’s discovery of the structure of an atom as an example. The scientist had based his project on something that might have seemed unrelated: the solar system.
According to the model proposed by Lewis and his team, Rutherford’s knowledge of atoms and solar systems would have been divided into different patterns during non-REM sleep. Then, during REM sleep, the memories of the atoms would have been reproduced together with those of the solar system, allowing an overlap between them and the subsequent application of the scheme to the work of the scientist.
In practice, how does this theory translate? If we have a difficult problem to solve, let’s allow ourselves enough nights of sleep, especially if we’re working on something that requires us to think outside the box.
The study was published on Cell .