From solving problems to flashes of inspiration, scientists are beginning to unravel the creative powerhouse that is the mind at night.
By Kate Wighton / The Times UK
History is peppered with tales of phenomenal ideas taking shape in sleeping minds; Paul McCartney said that he awoke with the tune of Yesterday in his head, and Robert Louis Stevenson said that the idea for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hydecame to him in a dream.
But what exactly is going on in our minds while we sleep? Does slumber really prompt creative genius? And can the most uncreative of people receive flashes of inspiration once their head hits the pillow?
Scientists believe that the mind at night weaves together bits of information in innovative ways. Throughout the day your brain rarely gets a chance to stop and think. In a state of constant alertness, it responds to a stream of challenges, from writing a report for a work deadline to remembering where you left your car keys and figuring out what to buy for dinner.
Even when we are relaxing in front of the television, the brain is still beavering away, processing the information about the plot lines, or co-ordinating your arm movements every time you sip your wine. Believe or not, even watching Strictly Come Dancing requires brain power.
Sleep is the only time when your brain gets to relax and mull over the thoughts of the day. This is when new ideas and ways of thinking start to emerge.
“Think of your brain like a web,” says Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University.
“During the day the web is very tight, so you can only put information in a certain number of places. During sleep the web expands, and with the luxury of time, those bits of information can be put into lots of different places and make new associations.”
He adds that this process may help to foster the formation of new ideas. Experts, however, are divided on whether this occurs when you dream, or during deeper, non-dreaming sleep. This bringing together of seemingly unrelated bits of information is crucial to helping the brain think itself out of problems, says Matthew Walker, a sleep researcher at University of California, Berkeley.
“Sleep seems to stimulate your mind to make non-obvious connections. It puts all the information from the day into a big biological theatre and forces the mind to speak to people at the back of the theatre, who you may not think you have any connection with. This is the basis of creativity - connecting ideas, events and memories that wouldn't normally fit together.”
In fact, this creative process has been visualised by scientists. By placing volunteers into brain scanners and sending them to sleep, scientists have seen that the areas associated with emotion go into overdrive, especially while dreaming, while the areas that are responsible for logic are switched off. This not only explains why dreams are incredibly random - you can be talking to a colleague one minute and the next minute sitting in a your old school classroom dressed in your pyjamas - but this rewiring also explains how the brain can pull together disparate information. As to how much sleep we need, experts believe this varies from person to person. But a sure sign of sleep deprivation is feeling sleepy during the day, aside from the mid-afternoon slump.
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