A new article on the association between REM sleep and dreaming reveals some extremely interesting information about the nature of sleeping, and dreaming. This topic is so intriguing because it affects us literally every day, in ways that we probably wouldn’t necessarily notice before learning about it here. The article mentions research connected to the associative processing that occurs during REM sleep, and how this can be lead to increases in insight and creativity. This research has shown that when awakening from REM sleep, participants are better at using their cognitive resources to solve problems requiring creative associative processing, such as anagrams. Another set of research shows that when people take naps containing REM sleep, they have been tested as performing better on tasks where subjects are required to find a link between supposedly unrelated words. An example of this remote associates task is: Plummer, tobacco, tube, where the word relating these three words is pipe. Awakening just after the REM cycle, this answer was easier to come by for most participants.
REM sleep is suggested to connect and integrate memories and situations. During sleep, our brains prefer to consolidate memories that are important in the future, like emotional experiences. In context, we will have an easier time remembering emotional experiences than neutral ones. A study by Carr and Neilsen, in 2015 looks at the associative power of REM sleep as it relates to emotional or neutral words. The participants were split into three groups. One group was awakened from REM sleep, another from NREM (non rapid eye movement) sleep, and the third was kept awake.
Subjects awakened following REM sleep showed a connection to broad, unusual associations between words. To explain, when subjects heard a word like “friend” before sleeping, then awakened from REM sleep, they were more likely to come up with words deviating from the three most common words associated with friend. So, instead of saying “buddy, companion, or ally” people in this group would be more likely to come up with words such as “comrade, or acquaintance.” This effect was only seen in words that had emotional influence, and not in the neutral word, such as “canoe.” The differentiation comes when the REM group from the NREM group and the group left awake are asked. These two groups came up with responses more consistent with the typical word associations to both types of words. It was also found that the deviation of the words given by the REM sleep group was increased when the word was a positive emotional word. This suggests that positive emotional experiences may be more focused, connected and enhanced, during REM sleep.
To relate dreaming, the REM cycle contains dreams that are often more clear, bizarre and emotional. These characteristics reflect this emotional and associative memory process that these studies are suggesting occur during REM sleep. Dreams are now being seen as a sort of virtual reality for problem solving as well as solutions to stresses, opening the mind to creative ways to approach problems and provide solutions to concerns.
What about the bad dreams? Your mind has a way of associating problems that you may be experiencing it, and attempting to find solutions and form connections within the dream. The perceived negativity of these types of dreams can restrict the associations, and cause a narrow-minded outlook of the nature of the dream. To avoid this, it is recommended to approach sleep with a positive mind-set to help enhance the processing while in sleep.
To conclude this interesting topic, and provide fruitful thought about the nature and importance of sleep, an excerpt from the original article wraps this topic up with “some things to consider before you go to sleep:
- REM sleep is very important for integrating recent experiences into elaborate memory networks (so give up the all-nighters!)
- The memories or experiences which are of greatest concern to you will more likely be processed during sleep.
- You can borrow the associative power of REM sleep by reflecting on problems immediately when you wake up.
- The best nap length to target a REM awakening is between 60-80 minutes. (Or, you could try ultra-short naps to capture the associative state that occurs right at sleep onset, read more about this in a previous post).
- Positive emotions can enhance associative thinking. Try to maintain a positive outlook towards your waking experiences.
- Remember your dreams! If nothing else, recording and reflecting on dreams can lend insights to emotional struggles or creative inspiration to your work.”
Cai, D. J., Mednick, S. A., Harrison, E. M., Kanady, J. C., & Mednick, S. C. (2009). REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(25), 10130-10134.
Carr, M., & Nielsen, T. (2015). Morning Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Naps Facilitate Broad Access to Emotional Semantic Networks. Sleep.
Hartmann, E. (1996). Outline for a theory on the nature and functions of dreaming. Dreaming, 6(2), 147.
Walker, M. P., Liston, C., Hobson, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2002). Cognitive flexibility across the sleep–wake cycle: REM-sleep enhancement of anagram problem solving. CognitiveBrain Research, 14(3), 317-324.