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Sleep and Problem Solving

By August 9, 2012Blog
sleep and problem solving

Do you remember a time when you just could not work out the answer to a problem and some time away, or a good night’s sleep, suddenly provided you with the seemingly ‘obvious’ answer?  The answer had not previously seemed quite as obvious.  You had tried hard to find it but for some reason you kept drawing blanks.  When you later revisited the problem, everything just seemed to come together in your mind like a clear roadmap to the solution.

I recall doing assignments for my Maths A-level, and being intrigued when I suddenly recognised the answer to the mathematical problem, an answer that had evaded me the day before.  I always found it intriguing how time away brought so much clarity.  What I didn’t realise was that this was probably due to the fact that I had since ‘slept on it’.

Recent research has shown that sleep can help the brain to consolidate memories and to problem solve.  Suddenly, the suggestion you’ve heard to ‘sleep on it’, makes more sense!

In Chapter 18 of my book, Relationship Remedies: Relating Better to Yourself and Others, I reference the work of Stickgold and Ellenbogen (2008).  Their research provides evidence to support the notion that the sleeping brain solves problems by consolidating memories and finding connections between the stored information/memories we have within our brains.

Furthermore, a study conducted by Ji & Wilson (2007) demonstrated that, during sleep, rats’ brains appeared to emit the same pattern of electrical activity that they had emitted earlier in the day during a maze learning exercise.  Their findings would indicate that the sleeping brain is indeed consolidating the information retained in the day by re-running the same information whilst asleep.

A similar study was conducted by Wagner et al. (2004) using human participants.  The study measured the differing success of problem solving in two different conditions: some slept between the problem solving exercises, the others did not sleep.  Those that did sleep were twice as likely to find a solution as those that did not benefit from sleep during the study.

James Maas, a sleep expert and social psychologist, states that research shows that the memory related neurons in our brains appear to switch off when we are awake but sleepy.  He also notes that there are long-term health benefits of regular naps, namely, a reduction in the risk of a heart attack, stroke and diabetes.

Therefore, it would appear that it is extremely important to sleep when you are struggling to solve a problem.  Some major companies, including Google, are now allowing their staff to take naps in order to improve productivity, creativity and problem solving ability!  If Google are allowing their workforce to do it, chances are, there’s a good reason for it.

So don’t feel guilty for taking a nap.  If you need a nap, take one.  If you need a good lie in, have one.  It may be exactly what you need to find the solutions you’re looking for, whether related to a work problem, relationship problem, or something else.

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