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 Your Brain Solves Problems During Sleep

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PostSubject: Your Brain Solves Problems During Sleep   Thu Feb 26, 2009 12:26 am

New dream research shows shuteye can be a powerful tool to solve your toughest dilemmas.

A growing contingent of researchers believes that our nocturnal musings are subconscious incubators capable of hatching answers to life's enigmas -- a notion sprung from sleep labs where researchers peek inside the brain at rest.

The data is clear: While asleep, the brain is capable of doing things it can't do when it's awake.

Learn New Skills By Osmosis

When Lisa Byerley Gary, 42, and her husband launched a weekly newspaper, she was in charge of layout and had to use an unfamiliar software program. Now a writing instructor at the University of Tennessee, Byerley Gary reflects on those harried weeks and chuckles at how she tossed and turned.

"Night after night, all night long, I would dream about laying out pages on the computer," she says. "I literally went through the steps of placing the text and making it fit." In retrospect, she says, the dreams sped her along the learning curve. "The dreams reassured me that I was working on the problem while I slept," she says. "My mind made use of every moment."

Sleep is the glue that binds new information into the brain. Robert Stickgold, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, looks at the effect of sleep on learning and memory.

In one study, Stickgold and his colleagues taught volunteers how to perform a task. Later, the researchers measured how quickly the subjects completed the task. They found that people tested later the same day didn't improve. But when they were allowed to sleep for at least 6 hours between the training and testing, their scores shot up by 15 percent. What really surprised Stickgold: Participants continued to increase their scores over the next 2 or 3 days without further practice or training.

In another study, Stickgold had volunteers -- including five amnesiacs -- play a video game a couple of hours a day for 3 days. Then he roused them just after they'd fallen asleep to discover what was running through their minds. Sure enough, they were dreaming of the game -- and that was true even for the amnesiacs, who had no memory of having played it.

"It's clear that a night of sleep changes the form of memories so you can perform tasks faster and more accurately," Stickgold says.


6 Ways to Mine Your Dreams for Answers

Try these tips to remember your dreams more vividly and make the most of their problem-solving potential

Start on a weekend: Dreams are best remembered when you wake without an alarm; that way, you'll likely wake from REM sleep, and your dream will be fresh in your mind, says psychologist and dream researcher Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., of Rush University Medical Center.

Sharpen your recall: Before you nod off, tell yourself your dreams matter and you want to remember them. Stating your intention is the first step toward enhancing dream recall, says G. William Domhoff, Ph.D., a dream researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "If you think they're unimportant, you'll forget them the instant you wake up."

Sleep on an easy one: Begin with something simple, like how to fit an oversize sofa into your overstuffed living room. Slowly work your way up to more intricate problems, like how to resolve a childhood issue with your sister. When Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, asked college students to solve problems in their sleep, nearly half of the volunteers who chose a moderately easy problem dreamed a solution within a week. But their success rate ebbed as the problems became more complicated.

Stay on track: Make the question the last thing you think about before nodding off.

"As you drift to sleep, you're very suggestible; it's a bit like a hypnotic trance," says Barrett. Use this time to conjure up your problem. Sum it up in one or two short sentences. If possible, put an object representing the quandary on a bedside table. If not, call to mind a clear image of the issue -- just make sure it's the last thing you mull over.

Write it down: Keep a pad of paper and a pen next to your bed. Upon waking, take a moment to lie quietly. Glance around the outskirts of your consciousness to see if a dream is lurking. "If a fragment comes into your head, gently follow it backward," says Domhoff. "We usually remember our dreams in reverse." So, like a loose piece of yarn, a dream may unravel if you tug gently on one end.

Keep still: If you wake up in the middle of a dream, mimic the body in REM sleep by staying still. During REM sleep, muscles are paralyzed, a protective mechanism that keeps you from socking your partner when you reach out to grab a flyaway Frisbee. Use this time to think about the dream and trace its story line. Give the dream a title before you open your eyes, says Cartwright, because when the mind is awake, it's more likely to remember a short catch-phrase than the visual images. Then write down as much as you can remember.

FULL STORY

By Catherine Guthrie
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