2 Mar 2011

Work while you sleep

My attention was recently attracted by a short article in a French daily newspaper (Le Monde, edition 27 & 28 February 2011), that spoke of the fact that one's brain continues to work whilst one sleeps. In other words the brain never rests, or at least not completely. Of course we know this from the world of dreams, but this article spoke of the sifting of information from everyday life, allowing the brain to abandon unwanted information, whilst retaining the more important stuff. Now how does the brain know what is "important" and what is not? Maybe its a matter of which brain we are talking about (good excuse to show this beautiful image of 8 brains).

I looked around for more information on this subject, and saw various articles, including some talking about "screen-saver" mode for the brain. I am not too convinced by this particular analogy, but then I do not know any more about computers than I do about the brain (and that ain't a lot folks!). Neuroscientists have found that a resting brain (see at top of page for a picture of a resting brain), awake or not, continues to perform meaningful functions (not quite sure what a "meaningful" function is, but still). In the process of research using 16 participants, Lila Davachi, of New York University, scanned the brains of her subjects using magnetic resonance imaging. Then she showed them images containing pairs of objects and asked them to imagine interactions between them. After a few minutes another scan was made.The test was repeated, with new faces and objects being shown each time. Finally, the participants were given a quiz designed to measure their recollection of the pictures. Comparing the results of the scans before and after the experiment, researchers found a higher level of correlation of brain activity after looking at the images than before. And the more brain activity going on during "rest" after looking at the images, the better a participant performed on the quiz. It would seem that other researchers have found similar results.

The piece of reserach related in the article that I read in Le Monde involved sleep phases for the subjects. The idea, I suppose, was to test that old saying "take a good night's sleep and all will be clear in the morning." Researchers took 26 volonterres, aged between 23 and 27, and showed them a series of words to read, each word being followed either by "to remember" or "to forget". Half the test group slept the night following this, whereas the other half was deprived of sleep. Three days later their memories of the full exercise were tested. The subjects who had slept performed much better that those who had not. The scan performed during the test also revealed that the hippocampus area of the brain (see above) was more active when a word was marked "to remember" than when one was marked "to forget". And this information, it seems, is consolidated by the brain when one is asleep, whereas the person who stays awake tends not to consolidate it.

So one's brains is functioning when one sleeps. In some respects it may even be functioning better when you are asleep than when you are awake. This probably doesn't mean that you should go to sleep at work, but it does mean that you need to sleep in order to be able to work well and retain stuff that you have recently taken in. Does this explain the use of short naps, or siestas? I do not know. It does give me an excuse to show this image (entitled Android at rest) which I also find very beautiful.

This particular piece of research does not tell us either whether men's brains are different from women's, but one can perhaps make assumptions on that issue from personal experience...


  1. Siesta is the key point ! It is a fantastic subject, that invites me to another point : human creation… Look at the poets, scientifics. They are never better when their brain is free ; let's say a bit alcoholized. Yes it is a fiendish topic ! Let's discuss about that !

  2. @Luc : I didn't see your answer in the post dedicated to the "Crunch". Yes I totally agree and we - David I am interested in your opinion too - should keep talking about that.

  3. have a look on : http://marketingduvin.blog-idrac.com/2011/01/26/le-neuromarketing-nous-force-t-il-a-boire/

  4. Not sure that free = alcohol-induced disinhibition. Alcohol is probably only useful in very moderate quantities. After that it only creates illusions of creative capacity.

  5. Yes of course I am quite sure binge drinking doesn't help at all to any kind of creativity !
    But think about one glass, and things turn generally better. 90% of contracts are signed for the aperitive or during dinners…

  6. Same answer as in "The Crunch", Olivier. Don't know whether we ... "should keep talking", but I enjoy doing it, so:
    I may sound emphatic ... and pathetic, but it took me the best part of 50 years to realize redistribution of wealth, retribution according to merits (to be defined) and a HUGE slowing down of so-called “progress” is no utopia at all. Even more, it is the only hope to keep this bloody planet alive for much longer. How come a lot of clever – I don’t deny it – people cannot realize that?
    I tutored a wine tasting in a Brussels restaurant, some 7-8 years ago (I wasn’t a wine-maker at that time, or then only on holiday), having been hired by the local branch of (hum, dare I say it?) ... Exon! They had a meeting with all the marketing managers from over 25 individual US states (Texas, California ... you name it) and Mexico as well, and had to be “entertained” at supper’s time. We had lovely wines – all French - and they enjoyed themselves. When the evening was over and I had done my duty, Dr Charlier stepped back and Mr. Jek ...iLéon made an appearance. I asked one single candid question: “What will happen in 30 years, when there is no longer any oil?”. I had expected an .... aula (Mexican Wave, David) of protest. Nothing of the like, their “chief” (hierarchy is very strong in US companies) answered: “ It is a serious problem ... but I won’t be there anymore to bother”.
    Maybe that’s the reason why some of our co-survivors just don’t care!

  7. Individualism… Unfortunately we are making money by exploiting human nature… But I have the feeling that things can change as I have had examples of that kind of thought around me. Why am I so confident ? Because people do not support being bored ! And our way of life is really boring ! So ! let's help people to feel alive by creating a new association : "be alive for a better death"
    Pardon my poor inspiration but it is a good start isn't it !

  8. Dear David,
    i also think that the brain,s work during our sleep is very interesting.
    When you are asleep you connect with your unconsciousness and you do not care about society,s judgement. You become as free as a baby but with the experience of your life time. We should take advantage of that special experience to regenerate our brain getting rid of all the stuff that prevent us from being what we really want to be.
    At the moment you are falling sleep you should tell your brain what to change and the brain will do the work for you. There are interesting researchs about that subject and it is an easy way to improve our life.

    it is an easy way of improvent our life.

  9. David I do not know how is written Kalin, my daughter, instead of me!!!
    Strange thinngs happen, I will find out.

  10. Must be the brain doing its secret work at night!

  11. I had the feeling you would get that kind of “two-storeyed” comments, so I waited before posting till “ les loups sortent du bois” (= until people would take off their masks). The scientifc approach – I’ve been involved in the research and marketing of isotopic brain tracers myself – where, as you elegantly showed, biochemical activity of the brain exerts itself on different levels, as opposed to the Freudian approach whereby “levels” mean a different thing altogether. It takes a Michel Onfray – amusing, clever, but a cheat and a lier – to “destroy” old Sigmund. Incidently, the cerebral cel (the neuron at least) is totally dependent on glucose for its functioning. It accepts no other fuel. I’m very proud to be a diabetic patient .... You remember Tonton David’s song (not you, idiot): “Mets ton cerveau sur la position HIGH ...”. You wonder.

  12. I’ve been told a cerebral cell works even better with two “l” ’s in English.

  13. Yes, it probably does. This is the multi-cellular approach to spelling.

  14. David, in a slightly simplistic way, I think most French civil servants would love your title, after some minor adaptation: “Sleep while you’re at work!”

  15. Very true! I once had a boss who hired me into a company where some people had gotten very lazy. He put up a sign in the entrance which said "I don't mind people sleeping here, but please do not snore or it will distract those who are trying to work"