From solving problems to flashes of inspiration, scientists are beginning to unravel the creative powerhouse that is the mind at night.
By Kate Wighton / Source: 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 Hyde came 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.
How to be inspired
Lack of sleep kills creativity: According to Professor Foster, a good night's sleep increases the likelihood of developing novel solutions to problems. If your grey matter won't produce a solution to a vexing problem - sleep on it.
Go to bed early: One study suggests that the most creative part of our sleeping occurs in the first half of the night, during slow-wave sleep. So if you need an answer to a solution and are short on time, it's best to go to bed early and get up early, rather than to stay up late.
Mull over a problem before you go to bed: Try to direct your creative powers by thinking about the problem you want to solve, but don't fret over it - you won't be able to sleep.
Storing Memories and Building Consciousness
Once asleep, your brain gets busy making sense of your experiences from the previous day, consolidating memories and transforming short-term memories into long-term ones. Become sleep-deprived and your memory suffers.
Jan Born, a neuroscientist at the University of Lübeck, Germany, believes that this memory storage takes place in non-dreaming deep sleep, and that most of it is done in the first half of the night.
“Sleep is very important for establishing consciousness by creating long-term memories. Without memories we wouldn't have consciousness.”
According to Jim Horne, a sleep researcher at the University of Loughborough, brain recovery begins after 30 minutes of sleep, and continues for the next five hours.
How to improve memory
If remembering phone numbers and directions is taxing, make sure that you're getting enough sleep - about seven hours. Lack of shut-eye can affect our working memory.
One of the best times to commit something you want to learn to memory is between 6pm and 8pm, because that's when our learning circuits are most active.
If you want to ensure that your grey matter has enough sleep to function properly, but find it hard to drop off, performing a routine before bedtime may help. According to Russell Foster, of Oxford University, routines help people to switch off and calm the chatter in their head. “For me, it's reading. I have to read something before going to sleep, even if it means doing so by torchlight with my wife asleep next to me,” he says. Others find that the process of making a hot (caffeine-free) drink can help to prepare their minds for sleep.
Reining In Emotions
Studies have indicated that the emotional circuits in our brain are 60 per cent more active when we are tired, or, put another way: “When we are deprived of sleep, we have the emotional integrity of Britney Spears,” says Matthew Walker, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley.
Through his experiments he believes that the parts of the brain that keep our emotional brain in check start to dwindle when we need sleep. This results in our brains switching to an almost Neanderthal state - impulsive and driven by emotions. “Sleep refreshes the brain's emotional circuits so that it can deal with emotional challenges,” he says.
Perils of sleep deprivation If you're going through a tough time in your professional or personal life, getting enough sleep is essential. Become sleep-deprived and your frayed emotions will reach breaking point. Lack of sleep increases levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenalin, making us tetchy.
Don't fret If you are worried about something, and find it hard to get to sleep, don't lie there fretting. It's likely that you will then start worrying about not getting enough sleep, and so the worry perpetuates. Jim Horne, a sleep researcher at the University of Loughborough, and author of Sleepfaring: A Journey Through The Science Of Sleep, recommends doing a jigsaw in a dimly-lit room. This will take your mind off your worries (more so than TV or a book), and should have you feeling sleepy within 10-20 minutes.
Don't make important decisions late into the night Hold that conversation until the next morning, and have a fresh look at that angry e-mail before hitting send.
Battling the Midnight Munchies
Once you've nodded off, the brain ramps up various hormones to ensure that you're not woken up by a gurgling tummy. These hormones trigger the release of fat from the body's stores to keep hunger at bay until the morning. Unfortunately you won't shed any pounds, although it's worth remembering that not enough sleep can result in weight gain because the hormones are thrown out of sync.
How to keep hunger at bay
Try to avoid eating just before bedtime This applies to fatty foods in particular, as they may cause heartburn. Ditch the cheese sandwich in favour of a hot drink.
If you are on a diet It's essential to get enough sleep if you want to lose weight. A lack of sleep plays havoc with the appetite controlling hormones, leptin and gherlin, making you super-hungry.
Avoid night-time trips to the fridge In most cases midnight snacking is simply comfort eating; your body doesn't actually need sustenance. And for a good night's sleep forget the nightcap, as alcohol can disrupt sleep.
Secret Dreams - And Those You Remember
Many of us will know people who claim that they never dream. They're wrong; during a typical night we have four periods of dreaming sleep. However, although we all dream for 100 minutes a night, we remember only the last few minutes of a dream, if any of it at all.
The only way we can remember a dream is to wake up while it's happening. Typically, this happens during our last cycle of dreams, which are the most intense, and occurs just before we're due to get up and our alarm clock brings us out of slumber. Don't over-analyse your dreams. According to Jan Born, of the University of Lübeck, we fill in the gaps in our dreams and stitch together random events to produce something meaningful.
Sweet dreams - and how to get them
Don't fret over anxiety-filled dreams If you're very anxious during the day, the chances are that you'll have anxious dreams. Try to work out what's worrying you - perhaps try writing it down, along with possible solutions.
Don't watch the news or a depressing TV programme just before bed. Your head will be full of angst and woe, and this will bleed into your dreams. Try deep-breathing exercise to switch off your brain before going to sleep.
Try a herbal sleeping pill containing valerian and hops A study of 30 people last year found that it could ease insomnia. Similarly, in 2006, a study of 43 student nurses found that placing lavender oil on your pillow helped to reduce anxiety.
Protecting Us From Ourselves
As a form of self-protection, your brain paralyses the body while dreaming. However, if awoken suddenly from a nightmare, a person may find themselves briefly unable to move. This is known as sleep paralysis and in severe cases it prompts hallucinations, with the nightmare continuing in the waking mind.
Sleep-walking and sleep-talking occur in a non-dreaming stage of sleep. Consequently, your body is still able to move. Another type of “dreaming” that occurs in non-dreaming sleep is night terror. Particularly common in young children and people suffering from post-traumatic stress, these terrifying visions wake the person in a severely upset state. Yet the dreamers have no recollection of this in the morning.
Get a handle on sleep-walking and talking
If your child or partner is sleep-walking The most important thing is not to worry, as this could worsen the problem. Sleep-walking is linked to stress; if the person detects that you're worried, it may make them more anxious.
Find the source of their angst And try to resolve it. Talk to the person or child about anything that may be troubling them