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Tuesday, Oct 30th 2012
Want to Solve a Problem? Sleep on It
You snooze, you lose?
We've oftentimes pampered ourselves with that certain kind of "indulgence": a few stolen minutes of shut-eye come late morning, early afternoon or whenever we need an extra surge of energy. While not putting us into a deep slumber, it's just enough to wake us up feeling refreshed and reenergized.
Ah, naps. The benefits are many: They can lower your risk of heart disease, reduce stress, boost your mood and increase your productivity. Not a bad payoff for a mere 15 to 20 minutes of your time (the recommended length of a nap).
Why only 15 to 20 minutes? Well, aside from being realistic and fitting into your busy day, it will take you through the first two, relatively light, stages of sleep. And when you wake at the end of the light cycle of sleep, you're less likely to wake with that groggy I-have-cobwebs-in-my-brain feeling.
Now researchers are finding another benefit of taking some time out to snooze, one that's not merely physical.
Many times after a nap we come up with a certain "aha" moment, when that difficult problem or conundrum that had been clearly eluding us while awake suddenly becomes effortlessly transparent.
Fact or merely coincidence?
When researchers at Georgetown University monitored the brain activity of 15 napping adults by equipping their scalps with "optodes," electron-like optical fibers that measure blood flow to various regions of the brain, they found the right hemisphere of the brain to be extremely active and, at the same time, busy transmitting information to the brain's comparatively quiet left hemisphere. One of the researchers called the right side "better integrated." The findings were presented at the Neuroscience 2012 conference in New Orleans.
In general, the brain's left hemisphere tends to be more active than the right in people who are right-handed. And since about 95 percent of the general population -- and 13 out of the 15 study participants -- are right-handed, the findings came as a bit of a surprise.
What's the difference between left and right?
The right hemisphere is responsible for creativity, visualization and big-picture thinking, while the left is more analytical, excelling at things like language processing and math.
Says Scientific American:
Left-handers' brains are structured differently from right-handers' in ways that can allow them to process language, spatial relations and emotions in more diverse and potentially creative ways. Also, a slightly larger number of left-handers than right-handers are especially gifted in music and math. The fact that mathematicians are often musical may not be a coincidence.
MORE: Sleep Disorders
So, why all this hoopla about naps and creativity, otherwise known as having a problem and the suggestion to "sleep on it"?
The new findings suggest that it's possible naps, by enhancing the creative side of the brain, help us solve problems. While we sleep, the brain may be able to transfer information from a short-term to a more permanent memory bank.
Who knows? Maybe one day, rather than the idea of a solid eight-hour stretch of sleep, the advice will differ. Because the brain can only process so much without a break for sleep, and it needs time to "clean house" to make room for the new memories, perhaps we will be advised to sleep less at night and take a restorative midday nap.
Just think of the possibilities.