In dreams, our memories are remixed and reshuffled, a mash-up tape made by the mind.
But wait: for the sleep- and dream-deprived, the news gets even worse. In recent years, scientists have discovered that R.E.M. sleep isn’t just essential for the formation of long-term memories: it might also be an essential component of creativity.
In a 2004 paper published in Nature, Jan Born, a neuroscientist at the University of Lübeck, described the following experiment: a group of students was given a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. This required the subjects to apply a painstaking set of algorithms. However, Born had designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, which could only be uncovered if the subjects saw the subtle links between the different number sets. When left to their own devices, less than 25 percent of people found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. However, when Born allowed people to sleep between experimental trials, they suddenly became much more clever: 59 percent of all participants were able to find the shortcut. Born argues that deep sleep and dreaming “set the stage for the emergence of insight” by allowing us to mentally represent old ideas in new ways.
Or look at a recent paper published by Sara Mednick, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. She gave subjects a variety of remote-associate puzzles, which require subjects to find a word that’s associated with three other seemingly unrelated words. (Here’s a sample question: “broken,” “clear” and “eye.” The answer is “glass.”) Then, she instructed the subjects to take a nap. Interestingly, subjects who lapsed into R.E.M. during their nap solved 40 percent more puzzles than they did in the morning, before their brief sleep. (Subjects who quietly rested without sleeping or took a nap without R.E.M. showed a slight decrease in performance.) According to Mednick, the dramatic improvement in creativity is due to the fact that R.E.M. “primes associative networks,” allowing us to integrate new information into our problem-solving approach.
While Freud would certainly celebrate this research — as he predicted, dreams have “a psychological structure … which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state” — it’s worth pointing out that the stories we invent while sleeping are much more practical than he imagined. For the most part, they don’t reflect the unleashed id, full of unfulfilled sexual desires. Instead, we dream about what we think about: the mazes and mysteries of everyday life.
All this knowledge about the important roles dreams play in our waking lives is fascinating. But it doesn’t make me feel better about my insomnia. Obviously, my old consolation — dreams are nothing but useless melodramas — is clearly false. And though I eventually do fall asleep, lapsing into what I imagine is a rushed state of R.E.M., I can’t help but be jealous of my wife’s twitching eyelids at 2 a.m. She is busy remembering, processing, refreshing —and I am merely awake.
March 21, 2010
March 19, 2010, 8:30 pm Why We Need to Dream By JONAH LEHRER
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