Increasingly, science is discovering that while sleep allows your body to rest and recuperate, your brain is quite active while you slumber. Recently, News.com.au, NewsCorp Australia’s news and entertainment website, put together a great list of five things your brain is up to while you’re asleep. Here’s a brief look:
A recent study found that the brain processes complex stimuli during sleep, and uses this information to make decisions while awake. You can learn more about the study here. The researchers asked participants to categorise spoken words that were separated into different categories — words referring to animals or objects; and real words vs. fake words — and asked to indicate the category of the word they heard by pressing right or left buttons. When the task become automatic, the subjects were asked to continue but also told that they could fall asleep (they were lying in a dark room).
When the subjects were asleep, the researchers began introducing new words from the same categories. Brain monitoring devices showed that even when the subjects were sleeping, their brains continued to prepare the motor function to create right and left responses based on the meaning of the words they heard.
While you’re asleep, the brain is busy forming new memories, consolidating older ones, and linking more recent with earlier memories, during both REM and non-REM sleep. Lack of rest could have a significant affect the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory creation and consolidation.
For this reason, sleep plays a very important role in learning — it helps us to cement the new information we’re taking in for better later recall.
Sleep can be a powerful creativity-booster, as the mind in an unconscious resting state can make surprising new connections that it perhaps wouldn’t have made in a waking state. Many of the most important inventions have come to their inventors “while sleeping”, and this may explain the phenomena.
A 2007 University of California at Berkeley study found that sleep can foster “remote associates,” or unusual connections, in the brain — which could lead to a major “a-ha” moment upon waking. Upon waking from sleep, people are 33 per cent more likely to make connections between seemingly distantly related ideas.
A series of 2013 studies found that an important function of sleep may be to give the brain a chance to do a little housekeeping.
Researchers at the University of Rochester found that during sleep, the brains of mice clear out damaging molecules associated with neurodegeneration. The space between brain cells actually increased while the mice were unconscious, allowing the brain to flush out the toxic molecules that built up during waking hours.
Learns New Physical Tasks (!)
The brain stores information into long-term memory through something known as sleep spindles, short bursts of brain waves at strong frequencies that occur during REM sleep.
This process can be particularly helpful for storing information related to motor tasks, like driving, swinging a tennis racquet or practising a new dance move, so that these tasks become automatic. What happens during REM sleep is that the brain transfers short-term memories stored in the motor cortex to the temporal lobe, where they become long-term memories.