How sleeping makes you smarter

During slumber, our brain engages in data analysis, from strengthening memories to solving problems.
In 1865 Friedrich August Kekulé woke up from a strange dream: he imagined a snake forming a circle and biting its own tail. Like many organic chemists of the time, Kekulé had been working feverishly to describe the true chemical structure of benzene, a problem that continually eluded understanding. But Kekulé’s dream of a snake swallowing its tail, so the story goes, helped him to accurately realize that benzene’s structure formed a ring. This insight paved the way for a new understanding of organic chemistry and earned Kekulé a title of nobility in Germany. Although most of us have not been ennobled, there is something undeniably familiar about Kekulé’s problem-solving method. Whether deciding to go to a particular college, accept a challenging job offer or propose to a future spouse, “sleeping on it” seems to provide the clarity we need to piece together life’s puzzles. But how does slumber present us with answers?

The latest research suggests that while we are peacefully asleep our brain is busily processing the day’s information. It combs through recently formed memories, stabilizing, copying and filing them, so that they will be more useful the next day. A night of sleep can make memories resistant to interference from other information and allow us to recall them for use more effectively the next morning. And sleep not only strengthens memories, it also lets the brain sift through newly formed memories, possibly even identifying what is worth keeping and selectively maintaining or enhancing these aspects of a memory. When a picture contains both emotional and unemotional elements, sleep can save the important emotional parts and let the less relevant background drift away. It can analyze collections of memories to discover relations among them or identify the gist of a memory while the unnecessary details fade—perhaps even helping us find the meaning in what we have learned.

Not Merely Resting
If you find this news surprising, you are not alone. Until the mid-1950s, scientists generally assumed that the brain was shut down while we snoozed. Although German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus had evidence in 1885 that sleep protects simple memories from decay, for decades researchers attributed the effect to a passive protection against interference. We forget things, they argued, because all the new information coming in pushes out the existing memories. But because there is nothing coming in while we get shut-eye, we simply do not forget as much.

Then, in 1953, the late physiologists Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman of the University of Chicago discovered the rich variations in brain activity during sleep, and scientists realized they had been missing something important. Aserinsky and Kleitman found that our sleep follows a 90-minute cycle, in and out of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. During REM sleep, our brain waves—the oscillating electromagnetic signals that result from large-scale brain activity—look similar to those produced while we are awake. And in subsequent decades, the late Mircea Steriade of Laval University in Quebec and other neuroscientists discovered that individual collections of neurons were independently firing in between these REM phases, during periods known as slow-wave sleep, when large populations of brain cells fire synchronously in a steady rhythm of one to four beats each second. So it became clear that the sleeping brain was not merely “resting,” either in REM sleep or in slow-wave sleep. Sleep was doing something different. Something active.
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