I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know? ~ Ernest Hemingway Click To Tweet
Sleep. We all do it and we all need it. The science on sleep has reiterated time and time again that getting enough sleep can elevate your mood, aid in weight loss, and even offset the risk of developing certain types of cancer. But what about the cognitive and psychological benefits of sleep’s kiddie cousin, the nap? Well, the evidence is in, and the research has shown that your brain may be the biggest winner after a satisfying snooze session.
The Neuroscience of Sleep
Neuroscientists studying sleep behaviour have examined the implications of “power naps” on the brain, and these brief, yet reinvigorating periods of sleep seem to be doing more than just erasing early morning fatigue.
Researchers observing brain activity during sleep have found that the right hemisphere of the brain, the side responsible for creativity, remains active and even communicates to the left hemisphere during short power naps. In addition to creativity, the right hemisphere is responsible for abilities like facial recognition, expressing and reading emotions, musical inclinations, the interpretation of colour and imagery, as well as intuition. (And let’s not forget the second brain in this regard.)
Scientists believe that the reasoning behind this lingering function in brain activity while being placed under a state of deep sleep is largely due to the way that we process information.
Suresh Kotagal, a neurology professor at the Mayo Clinic, a medical research group in Rochester, Minnesota, says that our memories need to be processed after we store them, and that sleep provides the brain with the perfect opportunity to accomplish this task.
“We are exposed to certain pieces of information, but if we get to sleep on it, the sleep seems to facilitate the transfer of information from the short-term memory bank into the more permanent memory bank.”
There are countless reports outlining people’s experiences that suggest that we tend to be the most productive during early morning hours. But what is the scientific reasoning behind these testimonies, and is there an explanation for this documented phenomenon?
As it turns out, the empirical evidence points to rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep) as the key for helping stimulate cognitive performance, especially when it comes to the development of new ideas. REM sleep is a state of sleep that is characterized by durations of vivid dreaming. This includes bouts of lucid dreaming, a scenario where the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming.
Dr. Sara Mednick, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Riverside, conducted a study that tested participants’ abilities to perform creative problem solving. The results indicated that individuals who were able to achieve REM sleep during their daytime naps tended to perform better at the creative tasks that they were asked to complete after awakening, compared to those who were unable to reach a state of REM sleep.
Perhaps this can help validate Tarthang Tulku’s remarks, a Buddhist teacher, who said:
Dreams are a reservoir of knowledge and experience, yet they are often overlooked as a vehicle for exploring reality. Click To Tweet
Two Great Minds Who Embraced the Power Nap
Prolific figures like Salvador Dali, a revolutionary painter known for his surrealist style, and Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers of all time, both understood the important benefits of sleep for sparking creativity.
In his book entitled 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, Dali documents his struggle with getting just the right amount of shut-eye for inspiring great work. The scenario he meticulously outlined showcases a weary Dali seated in his chair and ready to pass out from exhaustion. He is holding a key in one of his hands, which he places above an upside-down plate. As soon as he enters into a state of deep sleep, the theory is that his hand should release the key, causing it to drop onto the plate, which would then consequently awaken him, readying him to resume his work fresh from the hypnagogic state. He writes:
“The moment the key drops from your fingers, you may be sure that the nose of its fall on the upside-down plate will awaken you, and you may be equally sure that this fugitive moment when you had barely lost consciousness and during which you cannot be assured of having really slept is totally sufficient, inasmuch as not a second more is needed for your physical and psychic being to be revivified by just the necessary amount of repose.”
This passage illustrates just one of many eccentricities that Dali adopted to retain his effectiveness as a painter. And he is far from the only famous mind to work with and attribute the phenomena of dreams and the hypnagogic state to their work and some of their most famous accomplishments. Everyone from Jack Nicklaus to Mary Shelley to Nikola Tesla spoke about their connections with the dream world and its influence on their creative processes.
In 4th Century BC Aristotle proposed an interesting, albeit now debunked theory on the science of sleep. He hypothesized that the digestion process after consuming a meal induced the body into a state of sleep because the digestion of food caused warm vapours to rise from the stomach and set in the head, where it would then need to be cooled, and that sleep facilitated this cooling process.
Although seemingly amusing by today’s standards, it’s important to remember that Aristotle’s ideas on sleep are nearly 2500 years old, and that, again, we are only coming to learn about the the enteric nervous system (the second brain) in the last couple of decades, along with its connection to the mysteries of gut flora and the human microbiome in general. His work clearly illustrates his extensive, imaginative capacity as an intellectual, and his philosophical ideas demonstrate how far ahead he was in terms of creative thinking and innovation for his time period.
Despite all the research that has been conducted thus far, sleep is still widely misunderstood, and we are only gradually unravelling the mysteries behind why we do it, how the process actually works, and its connection to creativity, insight and the many works of ‘genius’ it has incited throughout history.
But the beginning threads have been woven, however delicate they may be, and they seem to be forming the start of a tapestry that tells us that not only is napping not reserved for lazy people, it may just play a very important role in our capacity to reason in a manner that is highly divergent from anything we now understand.
So. Maybe it’s time to rephrase the clichéd idiom from you snooze, you lose to you snooze, you win… ?