The Link Between Sleep and Creativity
Organizing your memories while you’re out like a light can also boost creativity. “Anything that gives you a pause from taking in so much information and lets you switch to a processing mode where you're not only committing the information to memory but also reorganizing it, that's where some of the creative insight comes from,” says University of Notre Dame psychology professor Jessica Payne, Ph.D.
During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, networks in your brain talk with each other in very different ways compared to when you're awake. There’s a lot of activity in the hippocampus (which plays a role in long-term memory), the amygdala (a brain region important for emotion processing) and parts of the prefrontal cortex (the decision making area), according to Dr. Payne. “Then you've got this incredible de-activation of another part of the frontal lobe called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” Dr. Payne adds, which is thought to be the seat of rational control.
“If you think about what creativity really is, it's about far-flung solutions to problems, it's about seeing connections that you wouldn't usually see, it's about putting together the information that you already know in new and novel ways,” says Payne. “And so the processing of the brain during REM sleep might allow for that to happen.”
In other words, REM sleep allows your emotion, memory and decision-making centers to ramp up without the limits of rationality usually enforced by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Payne stresses that any rest you can get—even short breaks, meditation and exercise—can provide a break from absorbing information, allowing your brain time to reorganize memories and promote creativity.
The Importance of Quality Sleep
That said, some kinds of memory consolidation need longer sustained periods of sleep. Ina Djonlagic, M.D., a neurologist at Harvard University, led a study on motor learning in people with sleep apnea. She had them learn an exercise--typing a sequence of numbers on a computer keyboard. After they had a night of sleep, she compared their memory of the movements with the memory retention of a control group who slept the same number of hours, but without disturbances. The control group performed much better at the motor memory task the following morning, while those with sleep apnea barely showed improvement.
“Our research suggests that if you have more than the usual number of arousals, this will interrupt this [memory] process and interfere with the enhancement of learning while we sleep,” Dr. Djonlagic says. Arousals are small shifts in brain waves. She estimates that people need three- to five-minute periods of consistent sleep to stabilize new motor information for long-term memory storage. So if you're sleeping restlessly, such as with sleep apnea, you’re not getting that consistent rest.
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