Dreaming LifeDreaming Life

Scientists have known for a long time that sleep is important for learning. Sleep helps us form long-term memories and be more creative. A good night's sleep after you've learned something new will help you commit your new knowledge to memory. Do you have a problem that you can't solve? Sleep on it and after you awaken, you're likely to come up with a creative solution.

Researchers at the Federal University of Paraná in Brazil wanted to find out more about how sleep helps with problem solving. To do this, they studied how people solve problems they encounter in video games.

Photo by Gamesingear, Creative Commons License, Wikimedia CommonsThe researchers taught 29 female university students how to play the game Speedy Eggbert Mania®. Each student then played the game, progressing from level to level until she encountered a problem she couldn't solve. Once the student reached a level she couldn't clear within ten minutes, she ate a light meal and then either took a nap or stayed awake quietly for 90 minutes, the length of the average sleep cycle. 14 students napped while 15 remained awake.

All of the students had EEGs recording their sleep/wake state.

Later in the day, each student was tested at the level she was unable to finish earlier.

Of students who napped, 12 (86%) were able to solve the problem they had encountered earlier and get to the next level within 10 minutes.

Only seven of the students who remained awake - less than half - were able to succeed.

Sleep seemed to enhance the napping students' problem-solving abilities.

The fact that most of the non-napping students weren't able to solve the problems they encountered when playing showed that resting by itself wasn't enough. After all, those students had 90 minutes to relax. Sleep was essential.

Interestingly, the students who slept didn't spend much time in REM sleep. Despite the fact that earlier studies have shown that REM sleep is associated with creativity and problem solving, students who achieved REM sleep were no more likely to solve their problems than students who also napped but never entered REM sleep. The researchers think this means that that slow-wave, non-NREM sleep could be necessary for processing memories that involve spatial and visual information, the kind of information you encounter when playing a video game.

This research won't just help you get high scores on video games. According to the researchers, their study might mean that sleep helps you understand a problem better, and that can help you devise a strategy for solving it.

It could mean that the purpose of sleep is to help us survive by making it easier for us to solve problems we encounter in our daily lives.

You can read the full study at PLOSONEPLOSONE.