How many times have you heard some variation of the phrase “I need to sleep on it?” It turns out that the phrase may be more important that we realize.
I saw an incredible documentary about dreams the other day. There is amazing new research being done that supports the idea that dreaming plays an important role in how we process thoughts, emotions and experiences from our waking life.
It used to be thought that dreaming only occurred during REM sleep. But research shows that dreaming occurs during different phases of sleep. Dreams are different during the different phases and may serve different purposes.
For instance in some phases dreams occur at a rapid speed. A day long dream may occur in seconds while in other phases of sleep they may play out in real time. Another interesting difference is that while dreams in non-REM sleep seem to deal with a full range of emotions, dreams during REM sleep deal almost exclusively with negative or difficult emotions. It turns out that some people with depression sleep in almost exclusively REM sleep. This raises speculation that depression might be caused by spending almost all of sleep hours mired in negativity. This could lead to potential new treatments for depression.
Other research is looking at the nature of nightmares. There is evidence that suggests nightmares serve a very specific purpose. They are teaching us that we can cope with difficult situations. In childhood nightmares tend to be more fantasy – wolves and monsters. As we grow older our nightmares are more real world in nature – such as dealing with exams at school. Regardless of the content, they appear to be helping us to develop coping skills for real life.
One of the findings that has important and immediate implications for all of us has to do with how we process information from our day while we sleep. There is a really cool research project that is showing that we can actually teach ourselves to problem solve while we sleep. Subjects try to learn new skills during the day. Then, those that dreamed about the activity during the night actually performed significantly better the next day with no additional practice.
What researchers believe is that when we think about problems or issues during the day we are limited by reality. We tend to apply fairly rigid rules to how we think about things and what information we draw on. But when we sleep those rules go out the window. Logical barriers fall apart and we can connect seemingly unrelated pieces of information in new and creative ways. And that means we wake with new perspectives and new ideas.
My personal speculation is that this happens to some degree when we are awake but daydream or go into a trance state. I bet you’ve had those moments when you aren’t thinking specifically about a topic and suddenly a new insight comes to you. Or, you let your mind just drift off and suddenly an answer that eluded you seems completely obvious. My guess is that this is the same process at work.
So what does this mean for us in our daily lives? Well, several things. First, don’t underestimate the value of sleep. Sleeping and dreaming appear to serve very important purposes beyond physical rest. Not getting enough means you aren’t putting your brain to good use.
Another implication is that when we say “I’ll sleep on it”, we really should. That isn’t just a phrase to buy time. Sleeping on a problem or decision allows us to bring a whole new set of skills and thoughts to bear on the issue.
Finally, it challenges a commonly held idea regarding relationships…”never go to bed mad.” While the intent is obvious – don’t avoid issues, work them out – it turns out that going to bed may be exactly what is needed. Having the chance to process emotions, thoughts and ideas may give new perspectives and insight that allow your to resolve issues instead of just locking horns over them.
I need to think of a topic for my next blog post – I think I’ll go sleep on it…