Just Sleep On It: How Sleep Can Help You Work Through Difficult Problems

Ever had a problem that seemed to magically work itself out after a good night of sleep? Or a 3 am Eureka moment? It turns out that there’s solid scientific evidence behind that old piece of advice to just sleep on it when you’re in doubt.

Sleep is crucial for learning and memory. In particular, the process of consolidating information or making it stable and accessible seems to occur primarily during sleep. When you’re resting, your brain organises what you’ve learned that day—almost like sorting through a messy filing cabinet.

Imagine that ideas in your brain are connected in a network. For instance, "apple" may immediately call to mind "red" because, in your mental network, those ideas are closely associated.

Avenue researchers use these relationships to test creative problem-solving. For example, in remote-associate tests (RATS), they’ll provide three words that are supposed to recall a fourth related word. Essentially, when you’re presented with a set of words, related ideas in your mental network become activated until you reach the solution.

In one study, researchers had participants attempt a series of RATS with varying difficulties. Then, before reattempting the unsolved problems, the participants were separated into three groups: sleep, wake, or no delay. The results? Participants who slept through the night before solved more problems than the other groups. The researchers suspected that when you’re asleep, weaker associated concepts in your mental network became accessible.

If this works with word association tests, it stands to reason that we can solve more complex problems in the same way. So, sleeping may broaden the horizons of your thoughts. If you’re dealing with an issue, just try to sleep it off. Who knows? Maybe the next day, a solution will come to you when you’re not even thinking about it.

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