Somewhere over the rainbow...

Sleep If we have to cope with a problem, we are sometimes told to sleep on it, i.e. to put off our decision until the next morning. People tend to believe that the brain continues to nag at a problem during sleep, or that after sleep the brain has more energy to cope with the problem.

The story "The Wizard of Oz", for example, tells about Dorothy, a young girl who lives on a farm in Kansas and thinks about leaving home. She is suddenly caught up in a tornado and brought to another world somewhere over the rainbow. In this new world, Dorothy has to overcome many adventures with her friends before she can get back home to her family in Kansas. She realizes that home is the nicest place to be. At the end of the story, it's not clear if Dorothy dreamt all her adventures or if they really happened. Suppose Dorothy's story was dreamt, it definitely helped her learn to appreciate her home and family and make a decision, i.e. not to leave home. Even if such striking examples do not often occur in real life, can sleep and dreams help us solve our problems sometimes?

Although we still do not have universally accepted explanations for why we sleep and dream, researchers have found out that our sleeping habits and our dreams influence our memory. Sleep is a state of physical rest common to all mammals and birds, also to some reptiles, amphibians and fish. In order to investigate sleep, researchers measure the eye movement during sleep. Based on the speed of eye movement, researchers distinguish two stages of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep.

While there is relatively little dreaming during NREM sleep, during REM sleep, we have the most memorable dreams.

Researchers have found out that different memory types are best consolidated in different stages of sleep. Autobiographical and factual memories, for instance, refer to the process by which individuals remember the events lived within their context (date, place, emotional state...). These types of memories mostly appear in dreams during NREM sleep and seem to be best consolidated in this stage of sleep.
Procedural or implicit memories, on the other hand, which refer to the long-term memory of skills and procedures, seem to be consolidated in REM sleep. In dreams during REM sleep, we often find ourselves suspending natural laws, such as gravity. Thus, they often contain actions like flying or going through walls, which often makes the dream seem odd afterwards.

A healthy amount of sleep while preparing for an exam, a presentation or a driving test, can make learning and memorization more efficient. So, if you are really, really tired but should still solve a math problem, you are definitely not wasting your time by sleeping on it.

 Brainy's tip

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  • 2009