THE BLOG
04/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sleep: Memory, Technology And The Future

A little bit of time ago, when I was in my 20s, I befriended Marge Champion, a dancer who, in her 20s, was married to choreographer Gower Champion. Together they formed a famous Boy and Girl Next Door-type couple who hoofed it up on Broadway and in classic movies. Then, like most all-American couples, divorced with a public thoud. Marge went on to be a beloved dancer and step-maker, and we met when she was in her late 60s. I commented on how consistently she worked her hoofs off.

"Nap, dear, every single day. Take half an hour at around 4 o'clock every day and split those days into two! It's the only way." But alas, sleep has its detractors, my father being one of them. In my teen years, he got on my case about how much sleep I was getting -- and I am most certainly a nap aficionado. To him it was always too much! "You snooze, you lose," was his tossed bon mot. I took his words to heart, while constantly thinking that sleep was the ultimate source of creativity and inspiration.

I found I was not alone in this obsession. As I grew older, I stopped listening to my father and started getting ideas from pop. I learned that "Yesterday" came to McCartney in a dream and that the very inspiration behind Richards' riffing on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" was out of a snooze fest.

Like many of my friends, I discovered that authors and scientists make these claims too, and I'm sure most of it's lore (ask me about "Torn between Two Lovers" being recorded in a bathroom). Probably the best-known claims come from Samuel Coleridge, with his sleep-inspired poem "Kubla Khan" ("A Vision in a Dream"), and Nobelist Otto Loewi, who insisted that his chemical theory of neurotransmission was a dream sequence like the one from Dallas, only more believable.

This notion that more goes on in our sleep than just rest has captivated science fiction writers for nearly the last 100 years. And a number of writers have speculated about ways in which humanity could use sleep to learn. One of the earliest literary references to sleep learning was in Hugo Gernsback's 1911 novel Ralph 124c41+: A Romance of the Year 2660, in which the author describes a device called a Hypnobioscope that was designed to embed information in the sleeper's mind. While Gernsback's depiction may have come first, Aldous Huxley's depiction of sleep learning in Brave New World is the one most of us got wind of in college.

Some scientists were apparently intrigued enough by these literary depictions that they decided to investigate for themselves. Initial studies into sleep learning's success, back in the1940s and 1950s, were supportive of the theory that people could in fact learn in their sleep. But whether this benefited the student was debatable. The value of the knowledge retained, closely akin to rote memorization, was limited, since sleep learning did not allow the subjects to ascertain the relevance or context of the information they were supposedly learning.

Despite the initial promise of sleep learning, the general consensus in the scientific community is that the talked-about research is outdated. However, the same collective seems to be taking another look at sleep now. And there is a trend that is currently on the rise to focus on utilizing sleep for more than just catching Zs. Contrary to Dad's well-worn advice, sleeping can be quite productive both during and after your time away from waking consciousness.

Scientists have now found inconclusive how essential sleep(ing) is to creativity and problem solving. According to a German study sponsored by the University of Luebeck that appeared in the journal Nature: "Pivotal insights can be gained through sleep...It consolidates memories and, concomitantly, could allow insight by changing their representational structure." This study also showed that when presented with a basic math test, subjects who had had a full eight hours of sleep were three times more likely than sleep-deprived participants to solve a puzzle embedded in the test.

And a Harvard Medical School study came to the conclusion that "a night of sleep after being exposed to a class of mathematical problems more than doubles the likelihood of discovering" a solution.

And whereas sleep learning offered only the promise of our being able to regurgitate information from the night before, our latest understanding of sleep tells us that it is instrumental in the processing of memory and is vital to insight. A study from the University of Luebeck that we talked about already showed that a particularly important period of deep sleep called slow-wave sleep (SWS) is involved in the restructuring of memories from the previous day. This restructuring was linked to an increase in brainpower. Since SWS is one of the deepest parts of our internal sleep cycle, you can understand why it's important to get a full night's sleep.

Some sleepy-time devices, like the Hemi-Sync CD, are marketed as a "way to boost cognitive power by enhancing your sleep experience. Monroe Institute Hemi-Sync CDs for children help their young listeners learn more, retain more, concentrate, relax, and sleep. Hemi-Sync is a safe and effective way to maximize your child's potential."

But Hemi-Sync is just the beginning. In April of 2007, psychiatrist Giulio Tononi and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison utilized a procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate SWS in participants, which is a fancy way of saying that they strapped magnets to volunteers' heads to see if this helped bring SWS on. More important, Tononi was quoted saying: "With a single pulse, we were able to induce a wave that looks identical to the waves the brain makes normally during sleep."

There is further speculation that TMS sleep applications could be implemented to confer a magnetically induced powernap where you could get the equivalent of eight hours sleep in a fraction of the time. Imagine -- more time to do what?

So, magnetic sleep helmets are coming, and sooner than you think, since there are other devices like the Kvasar Dreammaskor Novadreamer lucid dreaming inducer already on the market, as well as the Morpheus REM monitor -- all of which are designed to enhance your experience in bed. No, not that experience...!

Once it dawns upon the powers that be just how much impact sleep has on the bottom line, we all might be demanded to get more shut-eye.

However, while creativity has long been associated with productivity, it remains to be seen just how long it will take for corporate America to become fully aware of the connection between sleep, creativity, and a potentially tremendous boost to the productivity of their knowledge base. But there are encouraging signs in the realm of work safety that seem to hint at a sea change on the horizon.

Employers realize the necessity of things like naps at work (my own firm built a "nap space" in the go-go 1990s, way before a Nap Center was installed in the Empire State Building or those happing salons along 57th in Manhattan (pulled 'em in) in order to instigate creativity and movement. I hear that machine shop supes have always asked their floor workers to nap to prevent them from being prone to accidents! And you better believe that there's already a device to help you take that nap you always want around 3 p.m. Though the makers score no points for the originality of their product name, the PowerNap NapMachine, which I covet daily, promises"3 hours of deep sleep in 20 minutes" (powernap.com).

It's only a matter of time -- and time off -- before the prevailing perspective shifts from reactive and safety-oriented to proactive sleep enhancement and all the creative benefits that obviously accrue from it. Hopefully, we won't wait too long for that to change. Judging by the bags under the eyes of bugged-out executives these days, maybe everyone has to sleep on it. Be sure to stay awake to see what happens!

Twitter @laermer

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.