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Sleep on it!

We spend one third of our lifetime sleeping. What exactly is the function of sleep? Researchers have perhaps uncovered part of the mystery surrounding it ...

Sleep on it!
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Sleeping does much more than put the body and mind to rest. Rather than switching itself off, it would seem that the brain continues working during the night to help neurons solve problems of the day before. So, sleep on it!

Studying sleep and brain function

What’s up with our neurons when we’re asleep? Do they work erratically, which would explain why we dream? This is what a team of German researchers determined to figure out. They selected 106 volunteers and presented them with various brain twisters in which they were instructed to discover hidden patterns in a series of numbers.

The problem was brought to the students’ attention for a very brief period of time and was to be submitted to them again in the morning of the next day. In the meantime, a proportion of these people were granted eight hours’ sleep, while the rest of them were deprived of varying amounts of sleep. A few of them were even required to get no sleep at all.

The brain never sleeps

The next morning, the volunteers were again presented with the same problem and this time they were asked to solve it. The results speak for themselves: twice as many of those who got a full night’s sleep were successful in working out the problem as compared to those who were entirely deprived of sleep. The performance of those who endured partial sleep-deprivation seemed directly correlated with the duration of their sleep.

Therefore, the brain seems to process problems in an effort to solve them while the person is asleep. According to the German researchers, it is during slow-wave sleep (SWS), often referred to as deep sleep, and not during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (the stage of sleep in which dreams occur) that our neurons concentrate on problems of the day before.

Sleepless nights and intellectual abilities

These findings are highly interesting. Not only is it essential to catch enough sleep to start the day with a well-functioning brain, but sleep also plays an instrumental role in processing the information of the day before. The famous recommendation to “sleep on it” takes on a whole new significance here.

Of course, one shouldn’t jump to hasty conclusions, as sleeplessness and sleep deprivation might have simply reduced the volunteers’ capacity to solve problems. Similarly, those who slept well may have woken up with a “fresher” brain while their neurons remained at rest all night. It will take further experiments to prove the hypothesis of the researchers.

Whatever the case, sleep is critical to maintaining best-possible intellectual abilities. It is already a proven fact that sleep is indispensable to concentration and memory. So, whether you’re a professional problem-solver or just a crossword addict, remember to sleep on it!

Source: "Sleep inspires insight," U Wagner, S Gais, H Haider, R Verleger, J Born - Nature, January 2004; vol. 427: p. 352-355.

Posted 10.05.2011

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