Tag: sleep

The link between sleep and creativity

I’m a big fan of sleep. Since buying a smartwatch earlier this year, I’ve been wearing it all of the time, including in bed at night. What I’ve found is that I’m actually a good sleeper, regularly sleeping better than 95% of other people who use the same Mi Fit app.

Like most people, after a poor night’s sleep I’m not at my best the next day. This article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic helps explain why.

As you start to fall asleep, you enter non-REM sleep. That includes a light phase that takes up most of the night, and a period of much heavier slumber called slow-wave sleep, or SWS, when millions of neurons fire simultaneously and strongly, like a cellular Greek chorus. “It’s something you don’t see in a wakeful state at all,” says Lewis. “You’re in a deep physiological state of sleep and you’d be unhappy if you were woken up.”

During that state, the brain replays memories. For example, the same neurons that fired when a rat ran through a maze during the day will spontaneously fire while it sleeps at night, in roughly the same order. These reruns help to consolidate and strengthen newly formed memories, integrating them into existing knowledge. But Lewis explains that they also help the brain extract generalities from specifics—an idea that others have also supported.

We’ve known for generations that, if we’ve got a problem to solve or a decision to make, that it’s a good idea to ‘sleep on it’. Science is catching up with folk wisdom.

The other phase of sleep—REM, which stands for rapid eye movement—is very different. That Greek chorus of neurons that sang so synchronously during non-REM sleep descends into a cacophonous din, as various parts of the neocortex become activated, seemingly at random. Meanwhile, a chemical called acetylcholine—the same one that Loewi identified in his sleep-inspired work—floods the brain, disrupting the connection between the hippocampus and the neocortex, and placing both in an especially flexible state, where connections between neurons can be more easily formed, strengthened, or weakened.

The difficulty is that our sleep quality is affected by blue light confusing the brain as to what kind of day it is. That’s why we’re seeing increasing numbers of devices changing your screen colour towards the red end of the spectrum in the evening. If you have disrupted sleep, you miss out on an important phase of your sleep cycle.

Crucially, they build on one another. The sleeping brain goes through one cycle of non-REM and REM sleep every 90 minutes or so. Over the course of a night—or several nights—the hippocampus and neocortex repeatedly sync up and decouple, and the sequence of abstraction and connection repeats itself. “An analogy would be two researchers who initially work on the same problem together, then go away and each think about it separately, then come back together to work on it further,” Lewis writes.

“The obvious implication is that if you’re working on a difficult problem, allow yourself enough nights of sleep,” she adds. “Particularly if you’re trying to work on something that requires thinking outside the box, maybe don’t do it in too much of a rush.”

As the article states, there’s further research to be done here. But, given that sleep (along with exercise and nutrition) is one of the three ‘pillars’ of productivity, this certainly chimes with my experience.

Source: The Atlantic

You need more daylight to sleep better

An an historian, I’ve often been fascinated about what life must have been like before the dawn of electricity. I have a love-hate relationship with artificial light. On the one hand, I use a lightbox to stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder. On the other hand, I’ve got (my optician tells me) not only pale blue irises but very thin corneas. That makes me photophobic and subject to the kind of glare on a regular basis I can only imagine ‘normal’ people get after staring at a lightbulb for a while.

In this article, Linda Geddes describes an experiment in which she decided to forgo artificial life for a number of weeks to see what effect it had on her health and, most importantly, her sleep.

Working with sleep researchers Derk-Jan Dijk and Nayantara Santhi at the University of Surrey, I designed a programme to go cold-turkey on artificial light after dark, and to try to maximise exposure to natural light during the day – all while juggling an office job and busy family life in urban Bristol.

By the end of 2017, instead of having to manually install something like f.lux on my devices, they all started to have it built-in. There’s a general realisation that blue light before bedtime is a bad idea. What this article points out, however, is another factor: how bright the light is that you’re subjected to during the day.

Light enables us to see, but it affects many other body systems as well. Light in the morning advances our internal clock, making us more lark-like, while light at night delays the clock, making us more owlish. Light also suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which signals to the rest of the body that it’s night-time – including the parts that regulate sleep. “Apart from vision, light has a powerful non-visual effect on our body and mind, something to remember when we stay indoors all day and have lights on late into the night,” says Santhi, who previously demonstrated that the evening light in our homes suppresses melatonin and delays the timing of our sleep.

The important correlation here is between the strength of light Geddes experienced during her waking hours, and the quality of her sleep.

But when I correlated my sleep with the amount of light I was exposed to during the daytime, an interesting pattern emerged. On the brightest days, I went to bed earlier. And for every 100 lux increase in my average daylight exposure, I experienced an increase in sleep efficiency of almost 1% and got an extra 10 minutes of sleep.

This isn’t just something that Geddes has experienced; studies have also found this kind of correlation.

In March 2007, Dijk and his colleagues replaced the light bulbs on two floors of an office block in northern England, housing an electronic parts distribution company. Workers on one floor of the building were exposed to blue-enriched lighting for four weeks; those on the other floor were exposed to white light. Then the bulbs were switched, meaning both groups were ultimately exposed to both types of light. They found that exposure to the blue-enriched white light during daytime hours improved the workers’ subjective alertness, performance, and evening fatigue. They also reported better quality and longer sleep.

So the key takeaway message?

It’s ridiculously simple. But spending more time outdoors during the daytime and dimming the lights in the evening really could be a recipe for better sleep and health. For millennia, humans have lived in synchrony with the Sun. Perhaps it’s time we got reacquainted.

Source: BBC Future

Sounds and smells can help reinforce learning while you sleep

Apparently, the idea of learning while you sleep is actually bollocks, at least the way we have come to believe it works:

It wasn’t until the 1950s that researchers discovered the touted effects of hypnopaedia were actually not due to sleep at all. Instead these contraptions were actually awakening people. The debunkers could tell by using a relatively established technique called electroencephalography (EEG), which records the brain’s electrical signals through electrodes placed on the scalp. Using EEG on their participants, researchers could tell that the sleep-learners were actually awake (something we still do in research today), and this all but ended research into sleep as a cognitive tool. 50 years later, we now know it is possible to alter memory during sleep, just in a different way than previously expected.

However, and fascinatingly, sounds (not words) and smells can reinforce learning:

In 2007, the neuroscientist Björn Rasch at Lübeck University and colleagues reported that smells, which were associated with previously learned material, could be used to cue the sleeping brain. The study authors had taught participants the locations of objects on a grid, just like in the game Concentration, and exposed them to the odour of roses as they did so. Next, participants slept in the lab, and the experimenters waited until the deepest stage of sleep (slow-wave sleep) to once again expose them to the odour. Then when they were awake, the participants were significantly better at remembering where the objects were located. This worked only if they had been exposed to the rose odour during learning, and had smelled it during slow-wave sleep. If they were exposed to the odour only while awake or during REM sleep, the cue didn’t work.

Pretty awesome. There are some things still to research:

Outstanding questions that we have yet to address include: does this work for foreign-language learning (ie, grammar learning), or just learning foreign vocabulary? Could it be used to help maintain memory performance in an ageing population? Does reactivating some memories mean that others are wiped away even more quickly?

Worth trying!

Source: Aeon