Have you ever wondered about the purpose of dreaming?
You’re not alone: the use of a process that spends so much energy while we sleep has always been a never-dying mystery.
Yet, as new tools emerge to analyze the content of patients’ dreams, studies have pictured a new aspect of dreaming: its ability to mix ideas and impressions from different sensory domains (audio, video, motor) to reset the brain.
According to Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep, REM Sleep (No Rapid Eye Movement) is a process by which the brain creates connections between distant neural networks, allowing our thoughts and ideas to progress. In short, creativity.
During this phase of sleep, we create non-linear associations memories, find new frameworks to consider our problems, melt our past memories with new knowledge, and resolve our underlying emotional issues.
Let me tell you 4 scientific experiments that show how your brain gets its creativity from these dreamy states.
Creating Non-Linear Memory Associations
Persistent in his search for a universal order to all the elements, one night in February 1869, the chemist Mendeleïev was exhausted. After weeks of testing all possible combinations of the atom, hydrogen, and other elements, he had forgotten to go to sleep.
Finally willing to go to bed, he was not expecting the enlightenment that was about to happen to him.
Barely asleep, the images of physical properties blended in his head, joining each other until they came together in an organized and quite harmonious form.
That night, Mendeleev had discovered the periodic table of elements for which he became famous.
What the scientist’s mind had then demonstrated was the high associative power of the neural dream process.
Neuroscientific studies have shown that REM sleep fosters the integration of unassociated information and broadens the connections between various memory networks.
One experiment has led participants to guess associations of distant words such as HEART, SIXTEEN, COOKIE (that give SWEET via the word SWEETHEART). Participants were grouped depending on whether they were entitled to more or less REM sleep.
The results showed that the group who get the most REM Sleep of the test guessed more associations compared to the other groups.
This sleep phase thus triggers a sense of imagination finding literal relationships between ideas: SIXTEEN — GIRL — SWEET. Meanwhile, a brain awake or under the effect of NREM sleep can only make logical deductions that are based on linear logic (SIXTEEN = A NUMBER, AN AGE, 15 + 1, …).
It is through these chains of non-linear associations that Mendeleev has found, for example, what he has been looking for such a long time.
Breaking the Code of Current Problems
Similarly, the dream state increases our ability to solve non-obvious problems, which requires thinking that can test other perspectives.
Our daytime thinking often focuses on one frame of thought and struggles with adopting other cognitive frames.
Neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born have studied the cognitive flexibility of participants in the face of complex problems. They confronted them with a long list of elaborate arithmetic problems with rules to solve them. What the experimenters did not specify, however, was the existence of a short formula that solve them very quickly.
At first, only 20% of the participants found the magic key. But by giving some sleep between sessions, it turned out that these same participants were 59% to found the quick solution.
The results of REM Sleep have been to redesign their recent memory of the problems. It led them to draw abstract concepts from it and to reframe the solution.
Without REM Sleep the other participants, meanwhile, stayed on the information they already had without trying to question them.
These results prove that the proverb “always sleep on a problem” is true and speed up problem-solving skills.
Melting Together Past and Present Knowledge
Contrary to popular belief, the brain does not retain all the information during the day. Each night, it carefully filters and selects the relevant memory it has collected.
But it doesn’t stop there. Sleep, especially REM sleep, also melts the elements of the freshly acquired memory into the usable long-term memories.
Matthew Walker and Robert Stickgold’s team worked on a specific experiment to understand how the brain sorts its memory at night.
By putting participants in a virtual maze game, they tested their ability to orient themselves and make the right choices in their journey.
At first, participants collected as many clues as they could find along the way. But this was not enough to simply realize the way out on their own.
The experimenters then let a few participants sleep between sessions and woke them up to check the content of their dreams.
They discovered that the majority dreamed of exercising in the maze. And these dreams gave them a greater ability to orient themselves, as if they were imagining the right way in their dream.
But, on closer examination, they also noticed that REM sleep actually did not dream about all aspects of the maze. The brain retained only a few details and transformed them into available information.
This experiment shows how dreams illuminate specific aspects of the day and mix them with our autobiographical memory.
That way, the information is freshly available in the sleeper’s mind as soon as he woke up!
Resolving and Dealing with Emotional Issues
From another perspective, dreams also have a role in regulating our emotions.
Making us relive our disturbing feelings, they remove the stress associated with them and merge them with positive memories.
Rosalind Cartwright, an expert in emotional intelligence, has studied the content of dreams in people who are depressed. While comparing her data, she realized that the therapeutic effect was not the same according to the type of REM Sleep.
Specifically, in order for people to heal from traumatic injuries, they had to relive them in a specific way. If they dreamed even of less related feelings, they could not get past their psychological pain.
By reliving them in the peaceful conditions of dreams, their brains were able to recombine these negative memories with their overall autobiographical memory. They were able to start from a new beginning and project a new light on their emotions.
As a result, dreams in the form of REM Sleep can reset the traces of emotions and information from the day before to give them a new meaning. They are the source of a permanent rejuvenation of our brain.
So don’t neglect your 8 hours of sleep every day to be at the maximum of your creative potential!