While doing our research for the book, BIG IDEAS, we studied sleep, and its connection to creativity and idea generation. The more we learned, the more we came to appreciate the value and importance of a good night’s rest.
Up until the 1950s, it was believed that sleep was simply a passive period of unconscious rest, but now we know that it’s a complex process, essential to creative thought, problem-solving, and to the rejuvenation of both the body and the mind.
Instead of resting, during sleep time, the brain is actively renewing itself, eliminating waste, and making critical connections that are essential to learning, innovative thinking, and problem-solving. During an eight-hour period, the brain transitions back and forth between different brain states, four to six times a night, producing both NREM (non-rapid eye movement), during deep sleep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when one is dreaming.
During the first half of the night, the brain spends most of its time in deep NREM sleep. This is the delta brain wave stage, when the brain waves are at the slowest frequency. When it slows down, the brain does two important things: 1) It trims, harvests and disposes of unnecessary neurons, and 2) it eliminates poisons and waste products produced earlier that day. The brain is made of up of both neurons and glial cells. One of the functions of the glial cells is to do the trimming, harvesting and disposal of neurons that are no longer needed. Like an automobile engine that produces exhaust, the hard work of thinking produces waste and poisons that must be eliminated. The blood removes these waste products as the brain experiences the slow, NREM sleep.
After the brain is cleansed and the poisons removed, the brain it is ready to do the important work of problem-solving and creative thinking, which work primarily takes place in the second half of the night, during REM sleep, when dreaming takes place. During REM sleep, the brain speeds up to the faster theta, or even to the faster alpha brain states, and is actively processing and organizing the information acquired during the previous day. It connects this new information with the information already stored in the brain. The process of dreaming is one of most effective ways for the brain to create, learn, and problem-solve. When a person dreams, the brain takes the problems and questions he or she has been thinking about, and with the new information, makes new connections, and develops possible solutions and creates new insights. During this more active brain state, the brain processes the same information, not once or twice, but many times, sometimes very quickly, over and over again. As a result, new learning takes place. This is a process neuroscientists call memory consolidation, which process is the transfer of newly acquired information from the working memory to long term memory. It is critical to one’s mental health and well-being.
People who believe that they can get by on five or six hours of sleep a night are fooling themselves. Their brain misses this critical, information-organizing and problem-solving REM time that is so important, and instead of producing clear, insightful thinking, their thoughts are hazy and jumbled. One of the ways the brain reacts to not getting enough sleep is by making the person feel anxious, stressed, and mentally disordered.
Have you ever noticed how good you feel and how much better you think when you go on vacation and get the sleep your brain requires? You feel relaxed and rejuvenated. You start to have creative thoughts and insights that you didn’t have before, in part, because you’re getting the rest that your brain needs to do its job well. Eight hours a night, every night, is what your sleeping goal should be. In turn, your brain will thank you by giving you more Aha! Moments, and better answers to your problems and questions.