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1. We have 80-100 billion neurons and each neuron has hundreds to thousands of connections to other neurons. When we sleep, the neurons make new connections (called synapses) between each other.  

2. NREM sleep is for mental recovery and learning - when we make memories so we can retain all that new information we gathered during the day.

3. REM sleep is for creativity - when we encode procedural memories like how to perform a new physical skill or mental process.

It’s clear that poor sleep causes health problems and can help you live a healthy disease-free life. But sleep also has a powerful effect on both mental and physical performance. This is true for exercise, sports, playing music, academics, business and most other pursuits. Let’s think about the positive effects of sleeping better and how that can help us learn better.

The main stages of sleep – NREM and REM, each have different effects on our ability to learn and create. Professor Vincent Walsh from the University College of London has described the deep, slow wave sleep that happens earlier in the night as being crucial for encoding of information and facts that we encountered during the day. NREM sleep seems to be when we encode memories and learn. The second half of the night – when we are in REM sleep – is when we encode procedural memories like how to perform a new physical skill or mental process. It is also when we do subconscious creative problem solving.

Simply, the first half of sleep is for mental recovery and learning, and the second half is for physical recovery and creativity.

Sleep Soundly to Be More Creative

One of the physiological processes that happens when we sleep is that neurons in our brains make new connections between each other. We have 80-100 billion neurons and each neuron has hundreds to thousands of connections to other neurons. It is these patterns of neurons and the connections between them that allow us to encode new learning, movement patterns and memories. The key is that the growth of new neurons and the new connections happens at night while we sleep. So if you want to ensure that you are being as creative as you can, that you can solve difficult problems, or come up with new ways of performing a task then sleep should be at the top of your list of priorities.

Recently, REM sleep has been identified as an incredibly creative state. In a study at the University of California-San Diego, researchers found that REM sleep “directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleep or wake state.” Yes, you heard that right – more even than any wake state! One of the study’s leaders explains: “We found that, for creative problems that you’ve already been working on, the passage of time is enough to find solutions. However, for new problems, only REM sleep enhances creativity.” In REM sleep, the brain makes new and useful associations between unrelated ideas.

Sleep Soundly to Learn Better

Pulling an all-nighter get ready for exams is common. In a school that I visited this year a Principal told me that many of the students show up to school with an array of energy drinks after staying up late studying. This is hardly a high performance approach. Imagine if we taught all our kids how to sleep better and we created a school system that supported that? What would happen to our learning as a nation? How cool would that be?

Our brains are made up of approximately 86 billion neurons. And when we sleep we create new connections between those neurons. Connections are critical, because it is those connections that form the basis for our thoughts, memories, problem solving, decision-making, motor patterns (how we move), and other important aspects of what makes us human. Scientists in China and the US have recently used a microscope to witness new synapses being formed in the brain during deep and sustained sleep. What exactly was it they could see? In short, they watched the brain building memories. We’ve known for a while that good quality sleep is necessary to remember what we have experienced and learned during the day, but not why. This study made visible the brain’s work of replaying the day’s activity like a movie and building new connections between neurons during sleep.

Today's POWER-UP: Make Sleep a Priority

If we are well rested, we are able to cope with life’s stresses, stronger and more effective in our exercise, sharper in our work and just plain more fun to be around. The catch is that the attitude toward sleep tends to be that it isn’t particularly important. It’s almost the opposite where it's a badge of honour to get by on less sleep. Which is crazy and we’re getting sick and performing horribly as a result. As you plan for your great word class life where you have an impact on the world, the more you can commit to getting a great sleep, the healthier and better you’ll be.

Dive Deeper: The Dr. Greg Wells Podcast: The Science of Sleep with Prof. Richard Horner

Here is a conversation with Prof. Richard Horner, who just published a book on sleep called "The Universal Pastime: Sleep and Rest Explained". In this conversation we go a bit deeper into the physiology of sleep, and why we sleep. We talk about circadian rhythms and some of the challenges we face in trying to sleep well in a world where we are disconnected from natural light / dark cycles. Its a fascinating conversation.

Podcast: Play in new window 

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