Want More Mental Bandwith? Take A Nap

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Scientists are trying to solve a stubborn mystery: Why do we sleep? PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien interviews Harvard sleep expert Robert Stickgold:

STICKGOLD: The basic driving evolutionary pressure for sleep is still hotly debated, and I don’t even know if we have discovered it yet. On some level, you can summarize what we know about sleep functions now by saying that if you don’t get enough sleep, you’re going to end up fat, sick and stupid. And that just feels like something my mother used to say to me.

O’BRIEN: But we have the science now to prove that?

STICKGOLD: But now we have some science to say that that’s really what’s going on.

O’BRIEN: Stickgold’s primary focus is on dreams and how they may make us smarter. His experiment begins with a video game. Study subjects who play the game, and then sleep, can get through the maze on average a minute faster after their nap, and even better if they dreamed about it.

STICKGOLD: It’s really those who can be remembering and reporting dreaming about the task that seemed to be the ones who really show the biggest improvement.

O’BRIEN: So, if you mull it over in the dream, you come out way ahead?

ROBERT STICKGOLD: Way ahead. And if you mull it over while you’re just sitting there awake, you don’t.

O’BRIEN: When we sleep, our brains receive no outside input and that frees up circuits that stay busy when we are awake. So, we actually have more bandwidth for problem-solving when we are conked out.

STICKGOLD: It seems like the brain has evolved sleep, maybe specifically for this purpose of giving it a chance to look at recently learned information and understand it differently.

O’BRIEN: Could this be the main reason we sleep?

STICKGOLD: It could be one of the main reasons. (Read more here.)

I love the idea that the quiet and inactivity of sleep actually frees up the mind’s “bandwith” for solving problems. If you’re interested in reading more about dreams and learning, I wrote about Stickgold’s research in my Time.com column, here.

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