Targeted problem reactivation and incubation during slow-wave sleep

Project: Research project

Project Details


Project Summary Countless anecdotes report sleep-assisted insight, or sudden solving of previously vexing problems. Prior research indicates both restructured memory (Ellenbogen et al., 2007) and sudden insight solutions (Wagner et al., 2004) benefit from periods of sleep, possibly dependent on the same sleep-dependent consolidation processes (Stickgold & Walker, 2013). In our proposed project, we adapt a recently developed memory paradigm that selectively enhances sleep-related memory consolidation to directly manipulate the incubation of problems during slow wave sleep. Thus, we can make more direct causal inferences about the sleep stages and processes that support incubation and subsequent solving of insight-like problems. If successful, the targeted incubation paradigm will provide a method for facilitating problem solving. The primary aim of the project is to test whether sleep facilitates problem solving through reactivation and restructuring of the problem representation during sleep. We test this by adapting the targeted memory reactivation paradigm developed by co-investigator Paller (e.g., Rudoy et al., 2009). Each participant engages in an evening and morning session for 5 days. Each evening session, participants attempt to solve a set of difficult insight-like problems, until 4 problems remain unsolved. The problems presented on any given day are distinctive by content, type, and modality (spatial versus verbal, etc..). During these evening sessions, each problem attempt is paired with a distinctive sound. Overnight, participants' sleep will be monitored with a portable EEG system capable of detecting sleep stages (particularly slow wave sleep). The sound cues for half the unsolved problems will be presented during slow wave sleep phases, triggering reactivation (Antony, ... Paller, et al., 2012). The following morning, participants will re-attempt all the unsolved problems; we predict they will perform better on problems targeted with sound cues during sleep, because memory consolidation permits restructuring necessary to solve such problems. Follow-up experiments will examine other sleep stages, problem types, and the pre-sleep processing necessary for successful incubation. This study is novel and transformative, generating a novel paradigm for research and for facilitating problem solving in the real world. If successful, it could lead to a new program of research that promises to illuminate the important role of sleep in problem solving and in cognition generally, as well as mechanisms of and interactions between memory and problem solving. Our team is equipped with a background in sleep mechanisms in memory and the neuroscience of problem solving, as well as is in possession of devices that can administer sounds during different sleep stages.
Effective start/end date12/24/155/31/19


  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (5R03HD087111-02)


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