Could Sleeping Solve Your Problems?
Sleeping on our problems may help us develop creative solutions. Have you ever arisen with an answer to a tricky issue? Maybe you woke up with a strategy for a math problem, a method for planning a tight schedule, or a solution to debug your code. Some research studies suggest that sleep helps us discover new perspectives and gain insight on our problems. But the research findings are mixed. Let’s discuss.
Sleep Supports Better Problem-Solving
One way that sleep may help us with problem-solving is by facilitating insight. That is, sleep may help us solve problems more efficiently.
In the early 2000s, researchers found that a night of sleep between learning to complete a math sequence and being testing on the math sequence helps participants discover a hidden shortcut. Monitoring response patterns allowed the researchers to determine which participants discovered the shortcut. Those who noticed the hidden rule responded with the final response instead of going through each item of the number sequence, thus solving the pattern with fewer steps.
More recently, researchers assessed the contribution of sleep depth to discovering insight. Specifically, they measured participants’ sleep stages based on brain activity (i.e., electroencephalography) and determined if light sleep stages support discovering a hidden rule in a number sequence task. Those who only entered light sleep during a nap between learning the number sequence task and being tested on it again later performed better than those who remained awake. After sleeping, most participants uncovered the shortcut and were able to solve the math sequence more efficiently, demonstrated by a stark decrease in the time they needed to solve the math sequence. Importantly, light sleep (i.e., Stage 1) seemed to drive the results for the sleep benefit on insight. Those who entered a deeper sleep stage (i.e., Stage 2) did not gain insight, similar to those who remained awake. Importantly, this study only examined sleep during a nap, not sleep over a full night, and participants were awakened after 20 minutes. More research is needed to better understand the contribution of short naps on creative problem-solving.
Repose vs Sleep: Which Supports Problem-Solving?
Some research findings suggest that sleep might not always be necessary for creative problem-solving. For example, some people who performed the math sequence task were able to discover the hidden shortcut early on, before an intervening sleep interval. Moreover, some participants discovered the rule after a waking break. Importantly, however, an intervening sleep period more than doubled the chances that people would gain insight. Sleep, then, may be helpful, but not required, for creative thinking.
Rest on its own might promote problem-solving abilities. One study suggests that a period of incubation (or time away from a problem) alone is sufficient for solving riddles. A 3-hour nap opportunity does not give people any additional creative benefit as compared to taking the same amount of time awake and away from the riddles. Taken together, repose may help with discovering novel solutions. However, the research on the role of sleep in creative problem-solving has not yet been firmly established.
Creativity on A Full Night of Sleep
Some researchers have suggested that interleaving sleep stages facilitates creative thinking. Specifically, multiple sleep stages, including both non-REM (light and deep sleep stages) and rapid eye movement (REM, sleep stages with quick eye movements when eyes are closed, low muscle engagement) sleep, are involved with creative thought processes. Non-REM sleep helps us to make generalizations about the information that we encounter. For example, if we read several articles on Medium about time management, note-taking, and creativity, we might find some overlap between the articles involving skills on efficiency and setting clear intentions. After consolidating generalizations, REM sleep might help us take what we’ve learned a step further to develop novel connections. We might be able to use the new information from several articles to apply time management strategies to our unique creative writing routines. Getting a full night of sleep, which typically includes REM and non-REM sleep stages, may help us creatively utilize information, making it relevant for our personal workflows.
In any case, prioritizing sleep health is helpful for general health. When we sleep better, we think better, and we feel better. An additional benefit: we might create better art, too.
- Problem-solving in the wild (i.e., outside of the lab environment) largely depends on one’s resources. Sleeping well cannot pay the bills, for example, but it might help with developing new ideas for additional income streams.
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- This article is based on my opinion and does not serve as a proxy for medical advice. If you are consistently having trouble with your sleep, I recommend consulting a trusted medical professional.