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What is Your Brain Doing While You Are Sleeping?

your brain while sleeping

We assume that the brain is doing something while we’re sleeping because we dream. But is dreaming all that is going on up there? Are dreams just random static coming out of our sleeping brains, or is our brain doing things behind our backs while we are sleeping?

When we get tired, sleeping gives us time to rest and rebuild. It seems logical that the brain would follow a similar pattern. After all, don’t we get tired of thinking and want to turn the process off after a while? Sleeping sounds like the perfect way for our whole system, including our brain, to check out and take a break.

Not so much!

When we are sleeping, our brain is extraordinarily active. As it turns out, much of that activity helps the brain to learn and remember. Sleeping is involved in the learning and memory process in several important ways. Let’s look at 3 of them.

Sleeping helps people recover forgotten skills

A study conducted by The University of Chicago concluded that sleeping helps the mind learn complicated tasks. It also helps people recover knowledge they thought they had forgotten over the course of a day.

For example, in one study, after learning how to play a video game much of that skill was lost within 12 hours. Amazingly, after a night’s sleep those lost abilities were restored. Why does this happen? It’s a consolidation process that brain goes through while we are sleeping.

Sleeping consolidates learning by restoring what was lost over the course of a day, and by protecting against further loss. These findings suggest that sleeping plays an important role in learning specialized skills, and in stabilizing and protecting memory. This consolidation process may also help with language skills like reading and writing, as well as eye-hand skills such as tennis. [read full report]

Sleeping selectively preserves emotional memories

A recent study offers new insights into the specific components of emotional memories. It suggests that sleeping plays a key role in determining what we remember – and what we forget. Findings show that sleeping helps the brain to selectively preserve and enhance certain aspects of a memory. Those with the greatest emotional value are enhanced, and simultaneously, those of lesser value are downgraded.

Emotional memories usually contain highly charged elements – for example, the car that sideswiped us on the ride home. These memories include some elements that are only vaguely related to the emotion. For example, the name of the street we were traveling on, or what store we had just passed. Evidently, the individual components of an emotional memory become ‘unbound’ during sleep. This enables the sleeping brain to selectively preserve only that information which it deems worthy of remembering. [read full report]

Sleeping helps us remember the sequence of events

We may have vivid memories of past events, but how do we remember the order of events? Until recently, it has never been clear how the brain keeps track of the chronological sequence in such memories. New research has confirmed that long-term memories are formed while we are sleeping. This is accomplished by the brain replaying the memories of our daily experiences during the night.

So, sleeping not only strengthens the content of a memory, but it also reestablishes the order in which those events took place. These findings show that it is the sleep associated consolidation of memories that helps establish our memory of events in chronological order. Something that we might not have been able to recall without this process. [read full report]

The importance of sleeping

There are several different types of memory. There is declarative memory which includes retrievable, fact-based information. There is episodic memory which focuses on events from your life. Finally, there is procedural memory which allows us to remember how to do something. Researchers have designed ways to test each of them. What have they found?

In almost every case, no matter which type of memory was involved, one fact remained constant. After first learning the task, sleeping on it improves performance. It’s as if our brains squeeze in some extra practice time while we are asleep.

Why is all this important? Some sleep researchers believe that for every two hours we spend awake, the brain needs to spend an hour sleeping. This sleep time is used to figure out what all these experiences mean. Clearly, sleeping plays a crucial role in helping us to grasp the meaning our own lives.

What good is knowledge that can’t be remembered?

We live in the age of information overload. There is more information in one Sunday edition of a big city newspaper than the average person took in during their entire lifetime 200 years ago. On top of that, people are trying to get by on much less sleep. This is a dangerous combination that could lead to accelerated loss of memory as we get older.

Are you having trouble making sense out of your life? Do you find yourself forgetting things more often? Is it taking longer to learn new skills than it used to? Why not sleep on it and see what happens.

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51 Comments

  1. Stephen May 8, 2009 Reply

    I love this article! I love this stuff period. Great article. I read recently about the pruning of what the brain considered unimportant material while we steep. That 3 pounds of flesh in our head is something amazingly incredible.

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hey Stephen, I thought you would like this. We’re walking in your territory here. We might have to nickname you the Brain Doc.

    • Rex May 27, 2014 Reply

      If you think of it as 3 lbs of spongy hormones you will be closer to the truth. : )

  2. Kikolani May 8, 2009 Reply

    That’s some interesting information. I always thought your brain kind of clears the mess of the day up while you sleep, so that you can wake up and be able to think clearly again the next day. That and provide multiple story lines for dreams to watch while it is processing.

    ~ Kristi

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hi Kristi, I think the brain tells us we need to go to sleep so it can do it’s thing without being interrupted by our inquires.

  3. Rocket Bunny May 8, 2009 Reply

    I only know to well the dreams are of people we have encountered in the past but those 3 Chimpanzee or maybe they were Orangutans. Any ways they locked the door and Thumper and our dog kicked it down and chased them off. Thinking about it the 3 were likely named John, Christian and Jeff.
    I know sometimes I awake from dreaming and remember my dream for a while but it is gone in minutes. Other times my dreams can linger and some even haunt me because I cant understand them. Then there are the ones I can’t wait to share with Thumper because he never remembers his dreams.

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Wow Bunny, sounds like your brain likes to keep you well entertained while you are sleeping.

  4. Dragos Roua May 8, 2009 Reply

    I once had a terrible experience during which I haven’t sleep for more than 5 days. In fact, 5 days and 6 nights. It was horrible but it was also a growing experience.

    Ever since that period I have white nights every now and then without much trouble. During that period of 5 days without sleep I had some of the most vivid hallucinations in my life, meaning my brain was on a travel of his own. It was so enlightening to see how much we are tied up to the sleep. I think we can only begin to realize how important sleep is for our existence.

    But one thing I can tell you from experience: the overall capacity of living (including but not limiting to: creativity, ability to create and form relationships, learning and communicating) is highly related to the amount of sleep we get.

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hey Dragos, I can’t imagine going that long without sleep. It seems almost impossible to do without some really extreme circumstanced.

  5. Mike King May 9, 2009 Reply

    Great article and definitely one of my favorite topics! Dragos, I too like how you have found some deeper meaning in our sleep than most take for granted. The thing that bugs me the most is that people will spend hours and hours to research some simple decision like what phone to buy or vacation to take but don’t spend anytime at all really studying and getting better at sleep. It’s something you do a third of your life and most people are really BAD at it!

    I will have to disagree with your point though Dragos about the amount of sleep and reframe that to the amount of quality sleep. Most people need so much sleep because they really don’t get a good quality sleep. That’s all I spend my time learning about sleep and I get excellent quality sleep in much less hours by any and every measure I’ve ever found or read about (aside from # of hours of course)!!!

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hi Mike, Interesting that this is a favorite subject for you. Have any sleep facts that you want to share?

      • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

        The facts I find most interesting is in how little attention people put to learning about sleep and to actually getting better at sleep. It’s not just a matter of hours, there are many sleep factors at play in the quality of your sleep. Your wakefulness biological clock is the first thing you should be consistent to get the best sleep. Don’t change your sleep patterns constantly and you will actually fall asleep much easier and get into slow wave sleep cycles quicker so you can heal your body and mind. Mess with that and you lengthen you sleep onset cycles which really don’t do you any good recovery or for rest. That’s just one, the rest are all about how you sleep from light cues, pre-sleep activity, waking methods, beliefs and attitudes about sleep, naps, etc, etc.

  6. Robin Easton May 9, 2009 Reply

    Oh!! I LOVE this stuff. I am so aware while I sleep and yet I am fully resting. In fact if I am NOT dreaming, processing, solving problems, I am not having a good nights sleep. BUT if I am at the computer, or watch a movie I will spend my whole night unloading the excess information overload…INSTEAD of dreaming. That is one of the things I dislike about working on the computer. It royally messes with my brain in ways that I don’t like. There is so much more I’d love to share here but it is already past midnight and I’ve had too many late nights and sunrise morns. SO I am off to sleep. LOL!!! Wonderful post. Such juicy stuff.

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Greetings Robin, few people are as tuned into their sleep as you are Robin. And I don’t know anyone else who dreams music and then gets up and plays it. In fact, everyone should watch Robin play.

  7. Cody May 10, 2009 Reply

    Yeah sleep is definitely an interesting thing, I’m sure I have no idea what really is happening while I sleep but I know things are going on that I know nothing about. Very interesting subject.

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hey Cody, It’s pretty cool how science can stick electrodes on our head and eavesdrop on our brains while we are sleeping.

  8. Liara Covert May 10, 2009 Reply

    As you imply, lots of people do not realize the mind functions on different levels during waking and sleeping consciousness. It is meaningful to encourage people to make sense of where they are at this moment in their lives. The past is not the present. The future has not yet unfolded. Each person can be aware and make a difference in the now. It begins with the power of intention and you determine where events go from there….

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hi Liara, It would be quite an accomplishment to be able to do that while we are sleeping.

  9. Jeff May 11, 2009 Reply

    Sleeping is one of the oddest thing we do. It is like we are robots that go in hibernation mode for several hours every night so we can organize all the data we are storing. I guess we have to defragment our memories sometime. Interesting stuff!

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hey Jeff, it’s gotta be pretty important because we seem to be hardwired to spend about one third of our life doing it.

  10. Matt Clark May 11, 2009 Reply

    This is great, I am happy to see that when I fall to sleep listening to audiobooks on my ipod I am still picking things up. Always learning :-)

    Make it great,
    Matt

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hey Matt, there is a lot of scientific debate over whether or not we can learn in that way. Then the is the whole subject of which frequencies reach our brain during the various stages of brain wave activity encountered during sleep. But then again, there seems to be plenty of scientific debate about everything.

  11. Jennifer Ryan May 21, 2009 Reply

    Great article! I’m glad I stumbled upon this article tonight. I call my sleeping time my “incubation” period. For the reasons you mentioned in your article, I find it incredibly useful and absolutely NECESSARY to have my sleep!! Good sleep, too! And, naps. :)

    Thanks again! Great blog. :)

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hi Jennifer, I have found that the older I get the more I appreciate quality sleep.

  12. how July 8, 2009 Reply

    how the $%#@ do I shut my brain off, while i sleep, I live in two worlds

  13. Aly B September 4, 2009 Reply

    Now just need to figure out how to hack the sleep process and fine tune it to optimum….. Maybe I’ll sleep over the idea tonight! ;)

    -Aly

  14. Sandra Lee October 4, 2010 Reply

    I’m so glad you are telling us this, Jonathan. I see a trend toward being more productive by getting less sleep. I agree with your conclusion: “On top of that, people are trying to get by on much less sleep. This is a dangerous combination that could lead to accelerated loss of memory as we get older.”

    We are all different. Some people need less sleep than others. In addition to have the facts, I think it’s also crucial to really tune into your self and listen to what your body needs.

    Thanks for this excellent information.

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hi Sandra, those are all excellent points and I totally agree!

  15. Dr Simon Aspinal December 4, 2010 Reply

    Sadly, for all adults and most children over the age of three, cognitive learning cannot take place while you are asleep. The term “Hypnopedia” was invented in the mid 1940?s to put some kind of “scientific-sounding” definition to the concept – but like most pseudo-science, the words all sound gloriously convincing while the facts always suggest precicely the opposite.

    Babies – and children up to no more than three years old – probably do “learn” while they are asleep, and a recent study indicated that there may be some truth in this, largely because of bio-neurological developments in the brain that occur when we are all very young – eg: the development of synapse networks (all the nerve cables and switches that map out across the brain). As these (largely) biological developments take place, the brain’s wiring joins up many different parts. “Knowledge” in various areas can subsequently be assimilated and collectively evaluated by the brain as this wiring network grows – and as it grows even while a baby is asleep, the physical linking up is believed to influence cognitive processes.

    By the time we are two or three years old (even earlier in most people), the brain’s wiring is largely complete and if anything, it starts to slowly deteriorate from that point onwards.

    Learning (in the sense that adults understand it) is a conscious process and requires structured, ordered thinking. Your brain’s capacity to order and structure information (indeed to make sense of it) is vastly diminished when you are asleep, and your subconscious mind has absolutely no capacity to learn anything whatsoever. You have no sense of time when you are asleep, and for the most part, logic deserts you. This is why when you remember parts of a dream, they seem so absurd, or wierd.

    Sleep can help you learn of course. Lengthy studies at Harvard Medical School on sleep and sleep behaviour show that a good night’s rest can contribute significantly to learning when you wake up. A well-rested and refreshed brain is far more perceptive to stimuli and is more lilkely to retain information.

    So don’t waste your money on !”Learn Japanese While You Sleep”… or if you do buy the recordings, get a good night’s rest and listen to the material ONLY when you are wide awake!

    • Jonathan February 18, 2011 Reply

      Hey Doc, thanks for sharing this info with us. I have read some of the studies about how a good night’s rest can contribute significantly to learning when you wake up. Also some about how our brains process and store what we have learned during the day while we are sleeping. Kind of like a sorting and cataloging session.

  16. Barbera Lewis March 18, 2011 Reply

    I never knew this! Thanks for the info, it was a wonderful expansion to what I already knew about sleep! I will DEFINITELY be coming back for more info. Thank you and have a nice day!

  17. Garth April 29, 2011 Reply

    I dream evey night. Some are wierd and most are pretty normal. It is very interesting as to what is going on with the brain while you sleep. I have enjoyed reading this blog and comments.

  18. JK October 27, 2011 Reply

    I usually stay up from like 17-22 hours a day and usually sleep 3-6 hrs or usually Nap when most people Sleep and Sleep when most people Nap.. but sometimes I sleep like 10-12 hours on weekends and with these information overload days.. I have a weird sleep “pattern” and pretty much an insomniac.

    They say we can’t make up for sleep but how come I usually sleep almost exactly as long as the amount of sleep I missed. In this Information Overload world we live in today, I think it helps my brain be more active and remember more stuff or sometimes one thing might remind me of something else to remember, but even if I forget a lot, I still know a lot more than the people of 100 years ago.

    Also Google is great to learn new things but a lot of the time we just RELY on it to find answers. Albert Einstein suggest we humans should sleep 10 hours a day, he was a genius but apparently he had a special brain that made him that a genius.

    • Jonathan November 1, 2011 Reply

      You may feel like you are making up for missed sleep the there is are physiological and neurological effects associated with hormone levels and brain function that are cumulative. Our internal clock and hormone levels are set to respond to sunlight hitting our pineal gland via our eyes. Artificial light and unnatural sleeping patterns throw this rhythm out of sync.

  19. BEATRIZ MENDEZ January 2, 2012 Reply

    Thanks for letting us know fully what happens in our brain while we are sleeping. Now I do understand why I am a very positive person. The fact is that when things go wrong and I have lots of problems or things to solve, I just feel really sleepy and have no desire to do anything but sleep. I used to call it my running away from responsibilities, but I get it now and it is my reloading by recovering forgotten skills, remembering the sequence of events, selectively preserving emotional memories to solve the issues I face. Then, I used to wake up less stressed, not sad nor really worried any more. I used to find solutions quickly and not only one but many.

  20. Angela April 30, 2012 Reply

    I personally think our brain works wonders, I have always known that our brain doesn’t sleep; however we dream everyday some we may forget as we wake, and others we remember. I was always told the dreams we remember should be used as guides to help us in our waking lives; however I also know that sleeping with a TV or a radio on can indeed influence our dreams. Your brain is working 24/7 to help you remember important details. Imagine if your brain was asleep, you wouldn’t remember anything, not even your name. Our brain is amazing.

  21. Vivek May 13, 2012 Reply

    Loved this article!
    Thanks a lot, Jonathan

  22. william June 24, 2012 Reply

    I can’t fall to sleep without first thinking about something until I do. I kid you not when I say I dream almost every night because of it. I’ll lay there in my bed focusing on a certain subject and then drift off into a dream state.

  23. Antony Bennett January 6, 2013 Reply

    This is a very interesting article. I hope I remember all of this information. I think I’ll sleep on it ;).

  24. Sandra Pawula November 18, 2013 Reply

    I love the validation this research provides. I value sleep greatly. Whenever I feel off-kilter, I take a nap and feel restored. I know that doesn’t work for everyone, but it works exceptionally well for me.

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