Are Your Dreams Making You Smarter?

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What if every time you went to sleep, tiny elves ran around your brain, organizing the clutter, putting names, faces, relationships, and conversations in the right places, and polishing up the facts you learned during the day? And what if, after these elves were done, you woke up much more likely to retain all the information you’d accumulated during your waking hours?

The reality isn’t all that far off. Researchers now believe that if you dream about what you’ve learned during your waking hours, you’re far more likely to retain that information. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Sara Mednick and colleagues found that people who took naps and went into deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when dreams are most vivid, performed better on creativity-oriented work problems; it improved their ability to see connections among unrelated things.

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Schacter believes that when memory is boosted by deep sleep, it has the additional benefit of helping you imagine and plan for the future. “When you imagine future events, you’re recombining aspects of experiences that have actually occurred,” he said in an interview with National Geographic.

It’s been widely accepted that dreaming plays an important role in helping us understand our world, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that it actually helps shape and retain what we’re learning as well. In a study published in PLOS One at the Sleep Disorders Unit at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, researchers taught a series of dance moves to patients with conditions like sleepwalking. They then videotaped the subjects and found, to their amazement, that the subjects performed the dance moves while asleep. “It was,” wrote lead author Delphine Oudiette, “the first direct and unambiguous demonstration of overt behavioral replay of a recently learned skill during human sleep.”

In fact, dreaming about something you’ve just learned is a sign that the knowledge has been processed by the supercomputer that is your brain. In a study published in Current Biology, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that college students who dreamed about a computer-maze task they’d learned indeed showed a tenfold improvement in their ability to navigate the maze compared to participants who didn’t dream about the task.

Dreams, Not Sleep

The benefits of sleep are well documented. Being well rested ensures better creative thinking. If you’ve had the full eight hours, you’re more likely to be able to solve problems, keep your cool, and come up with innovative ideas. Your memory and retention are far better than those of people who try to pull all-nighters. It’s why students who cram throughout the night are likely to have lower performances than those who get a good night’s sleep before an exam. In fact, studies show that students who get enough sleep are better at forming connections, seeing the big picture and noticing flaws, things that are much needed in today’s economy.

The benefits of sleep have been well outlined, but until now we thought that it was rest provided by sleep that was responsible for all of the creativity and memory benefits we reap in the morning. But perhaps we’ve been going about this all wrong. What if all the benefits that scientists attribute to our resting state are actually derived because our brain isn’t resting but is instead working through all of the material it’s accumulated during the day by creating dreams?

What Are Dreams, Anyway?

What exactly happens inside the brain when you’re dreaming? Turns out no one knows. There are different theories; some suggest that dreams could be expressing repressed childhood longings, sorting through the garbage of your day-to-day life, while others suggest that they can be random brain impulses that mean nothing.

In 1973, Harvard psychiatrists Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley came up with the random-brain-impulse theory called the “activation-synthesis” hypothesis. It suggests that the brain wants to make sense of what it has seen and experienced throughout the day, and so, when you’re sleeping, it digs into that vat of information and starts processing it. Hobson and McCarley believed that dreams are simply images that are leftover from all that brainwork.

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