“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”
For years, scientists thought that the function of sleep was merely to rest the body and mind, but recent research suggests that sleep is essential for both learning and creativity. It’s no surprise that people who are well rested learn better and are more creative. What is new is the value of sleeping after learning something or during a break in trying to solve a problem. Studies have looked at the benefits of taking naps as well as sleeping through the night.
During sleep, rat’s brains (and yours) practice what they’re recently learned.
Researchers have discovered that your brain becomes very active when you sleep, and that during certain phases of sleep, your brain becomes even more active if you’ve just learned something new. In an early study that identified this process, rats were hooked up to measure the electrical activity of their brains while they learned a maze. Later, while the rats were sleeping, the researchers observed that their brains were emitting the same pattern of activity they had emitted during maze learning. Apparently, the rats’ brains were “re-running” the maze in their sleep and using this time to consolidate their
memories of what they had learned. These rats performed better on the maze the next day than rats that were prevented from re-running the maze during sleep.
This same phenomenon has been observed in human learning. In other words, if you learn something and then sleep on it, what you’ve learned becomes clearer just as a function of sleeping. But what’s even more interesting is that sleeping on a problem helps people find better solutions. In a study titled “Sleep Inspires Insight,” participants were given puzzles that involved finding the final number to complete a series of digits. The way they were trained to solve the puzzle was to compare every two-digit pair in the series. What they were not told was that there was a shortcut that allowed people to identify the solution after only two steps. Participants performed three trials of the puzzle and then were given an eight-hour break before returning for ten more trials. Some of them slept during the break and some did not. The people who slept between the two sessions were twice as likely as the others to discover the easier way to solve the problem. According to the researchers, sleeping on a problem apparently allows for a restructuring of the brain connections, “setting the stage for the emergence of insight.”