“Man is a genius when he is dreaming.”
~ Akira Kurosawa
A growing body of scientific research indicates that while we’re sleeping, our minds are alive with activity.
One 2009 study by the University of California, San Diego, suggests we solve creative problems in our sleep. In Science Daily (June 9, 2009), the study's leader, assistant professor of psychiatry Sara Mednick, PhD, said, "We found that – for creative problems that you've already been working on – the passage of time is enough to find solutions" but " for new problems, only REM sleep enhances creativity."
Professor Mednick went on to add, “It appears REM sleep helps achieve such solutions by stimulating associative networks, allowing the brain to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas." Simon Bolivar and a banana. White rhinos and Thursdays. Tortilla chips and Dell Computers. Okay, brain, figure it out.
A second Science Daily article (September 16, 2009) reports on the sleeping brain’s role in memory formation. According to a study by Rutgers University and Collége de France, while we snooze, our brains sort through new information and transfer it to the neocortex, where long-term memories are archived.
In “Human Brain Still Awake, Even During Deep Sleep” — an October 17, 2008 article also published by Science Daily (which should perhaps rename itself the Daily Journal of Sleep) — the writer notes that even during the deepest phases of non-REM sleep certain areas of the brain are hard at work.
And now, in “The Brain’s Dark Energy,” an article in the March 2010 Scientific American, writer Marcus E. Raichle notes that even when we zone out, our brains are performing chores in the background on autopilot. “When your mind is at rest—when you are daydreaming quietly in a chair, say, asleep in a bed or anesthetized for surgery—dispersed brain areas are chattering away to one another.”
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“Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind at on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”
— J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, Chapter One
When I was a preschooler, my maternal grandmother read to me daily from Peter Pan, and gradually I learned to read. The passage above, about Mrs. Darling tidying up the minds of her children while they slept, had as powerful a hold on my imagination as any of Peter’s pirate adventures. Even then I knew that Barrie's description couldn’t literally be true, but I sensed that some sort of housekeeping happened while I slept.
By the time I was in middle school I had a theory, which goes like this: The mind is like a mail chute. All day long letters and notes and packages drop in; some reach their destinations and others jam up the system. At night, when you’re asleep, it all sorts itself out. Letters reach their appropriate addresses and junk falls to the bottom for disposal. Perhaps I wasn't so far from the truth.
“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.”
~ William Shakespeare, Macbeth