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Want to Be Smarter? Get Some Sleep

By Judith Kleinfeld / Anchorage Daily News

A friend of mine is worrying himself sleepless about getting enough sleep. He is convinced that he just isn't smart after a short night's sleep.

He's right, finds Robert Stickgold, a Harvard medical professor, and Jeffrey Ellenbogen, chief of the sleep division at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Sleep increases your judgment, creativity and memory.

The advice to "sleep on it" before we decide to go to accept a new job or make other life choices, is backed up by the latest research.

Sleep makes you smarter, but you have to get enough sleep and the right kind of sleep. You need more than six hours, and most of us, especially teenagers, don't get nearly enough sleep to be sharp the next day.

The brain is not sleeping while we sleep. It is working. In fact, during rapid-eye-movement sleep, our brain waves look much like our brain waves when we are awake. Nor do our brains turn off during the alternating periods of slow-wave sleep. Our brain cells fire in a steady rhythm. When we sleep, our brains are still working on challenges. In one study, people were asked to solve difficult mathematical problems using a tedious, time-consuming process.

Then the people were asked to solve similar mathematical problems the next day. Some were allowed to get a good night's sleep, and others were not.

More than two and a half times the number of people who had gotten sleep figured out the trick.

"Somehow the sleeping brain was solving this problem, without even knowing there was a problem to solve," write Stickgold and Ellenbogen.

Companies like Google and Cisco have paid attention to such sleep research. They have installed "Energy Pods" with leather recliners and egg-shaped hoods that pull down to block light and noise for their creative employees.

After a nap in the Energy Pod, the employees say they can break out of their tunnel vision and get insight into problems that have stumped them.

Sleep also strengthens our memories. During sleep, the brain combs through what has happened to us during the day, creating new neuronal connections, and consolidating memories.

In another experiment, the researchers asked people to memorize pairs of words, like "blanket-window." Some people got a good night's sleep and others were kept awake. Those who had slept recalled far more of the word pairs they had learned the previous day. When researchers tried to confuse people by pairing an old word with a new word, such as "blanket-sneaker," those who had slept could remember far more of the word pairs they had learned before.

We rehearse difficult tasks when we sleep and do better at them the next day. In another experiment, people learned to type difficult sequences of numbers like "4-1-3-2-4." After sleep, people's performance improved, especially on the number patterns they were having most trouble with.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging that shows which parts of the brain are most active, the researchers found the brain had actually moved the memories for these number patterns while people slept. The next day people used different regions of the brain ---- but only if they had slept.

Valuable memories can be filled with emotion. We need to remember what is frightening and destructive and what is satisfying and pleasant. In another study, Stickgold and Ellenborgen showed that memories for emotional experiences did not deteriorate but actually improved after a night of sleep.

Excessive sleepiness is a major cause of accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that sleepy drivers cause more than 100,000 automobile crashes, 71,000 injuries, and 1,550 fatalities each year.

Nearly 37 percent of drivers admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel, found a 2002 Gallup Poll.

"There will be sleep enough in the grave," said Benjamin Franklin. But sleep research confirms a different Franklin aphorism: " Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

 


 

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