People who are having trouble solving a problem or learning new
information are often told to sleep on it. This turns out to be great advice. While
your body is resting, your brain is busy laying the foundation for learning,
memory, and creativity.
Sleeping to Learn
One leading researcher in this area is psychologist Jessica
Payne at the University of Notre Dame. Payne headed up a recent study in
which participants studied pairs of words at either 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. The
participants’ recall of the words was then tested between 30 minutes and 24
hours later. Those who slept soon after learning the words remembered them
better than those who didn’t sleep for several hours afterward.
The implication is that reviewing for a test or rehearsing a
speech one last time before bed might help you remember the information the
next day. But there’s a caveat: Other studies have shown that people need to
sleep for at least six hours to see any improvement in learning, and eight
hours might be even better.
If you wait until the last minute to cram for a test or prep
for a presentation, you might stay up so late or feel so stressed that you don’t
get a good night’s sleep. That could actually hurt your performance the next
day. So reviewing the material one last time before bed may help, but burning
the midnight oil can backfire.
Sleep not only strengthens memories in the brain. Research indicates
that it also helps the brain reorganize and restructure those memories in ways
that could lead to creative insights. This may explain why so many artists and
scientists have claimed that they got some of their best ideas while asleep. For
example, Paul McCartney has said that the tune for his Beatles song “Yesterday”
came to him in a dream.
Research has generally backed up the idea that sleep promotes
creative problem solving. In a study from the University
of California at San Diego, researchers assessed creativity using something
called the Remote Associates Test. For this test, participants were shown
groups of three words (for example, cookie, heart, sixteen) and asked to think
of a fourth word that could be associated with all three (for example, sweet).
Participants were tested in the morning and again later in
the day after a nap with REM sleep, a nap without REM sleep, or a quiet rest
period. REM is the stage of sleep during which dreaming occurs. The REM group
improved over their morning performance on the creativity test, but the other
groups did not. The researchers speculated that changes in neurotransmitter systems
during REM might underlie the improvements.
On a physiological level, scientists are still exploring
how sleep sets the stage for learning, memory, and problem solving. However, it’s
believed that crucial pathways of brain cells may be formed or strengthened
In addition, sleep may be necessary for the pathways to work
efficiently. This could be the reason that lack of sleep is so detrimental to healthy brain
functioning. Studies have linked inadequate sleep to slowed down thinking, impaired
concentration, faulty decision-making, and slower reaction times. The bottom line: It’s smart to catch some zzzs.