Can Sleep Help You Solve Problems?

image of a brain thinkingHave you ever gone to sleep pondering over a problem you just can’t solve, to then wake up with the answer in your head as clear as day?

And when you feel stressed or worried about personal or work issues, do they somehow seem less important after a good night’s sleep?

I know from personal experience that this seemingly magical effect can sometimes happen just when you most need it. But is there any scientific evidence that sleeping on a problem really helps?

In this article I’ll be looking at some research to support the theory. And I’ll also touch on the idea that you might be able to train your brain to keep working for you whilst you sleep.

Before I start though, one slight warning based on my own experiences. If you consciously decide to ‘sleep on an issue’, it can result in poor quality sleep and sleep deprivation due to worry. This can defeat the whole exercise if it then results in even more stress for you.

What does research tell us?

In 2004, scientists at the University of Luebeck in Germany gave the same maths test to a group of sleep deprived people and a group who had eight hours sleep.

They found that those with eight hours sleep were three times more likely to figure out a hidden rule for converting the numbers into the right answer. How much of this was due to being less tired or the brain actually working on the problem whilst asleep isn’t clear.

It does though provide scientific support to something most of us know all too well; namely we generally perform much better after a good night’s sleep.

In 2012 a study was published in the journal Memory and Cognition by the department of Psychology at Lancaster University in England. This study looked at the effects of sleep on human problem solving ability.

The researchers, Ut Na Sio, Padraic Monaghan and Tom Ormerod split 61 people into 3 groups. They gave each person in the three groups the same problems of verbal insight to solve.

The problems were based on Remote Associates Tests (RAT). These standard tests require you to find a word that is related to three other words. For example, if presented with the words lick, sprinkle and mine, the answer would be salt.

Some problems used in this research were easy, and some more difficult. With varying gaps, all the groups then tried to solve the more difficult problems they didn’t manage to answer the first time. The different arrangements for the groups were:

  • Group one had a period of sleep before trying to solve the problems again.
  • Group two stayed awake, but also had a gap before attempting the problems again.
  • Group three had no delay and immediately attempted the problems again.

The researchers found that group one, who had a period of sleep between attempts, solved more of the difficult problems than groups two and three. However, there was no significant difference between the problem solving ability of any group for the easy problems.

Accordingly, the researchers argue that their study illustrates that sleep can help the brain to solve difficult problems. So the old adage of ‘sleep on it’ definitely seems to have merit.

It’s interesting though that their study shows that for simpler problems, sleep is no more useful than continuing to try to solve the problem, or just taking some time out.

Other research studies have shown that this increased ability to solve problems only occurs after REM sleep. REM sleep is also the period when most people can recall their dreams.

So perhaps there is a relationship between dreaming and improved problem solving. Indeed, research also suggests that the short ‘power-nap’ doesn’t have any impact on solving problems which had eluded you earlier. Though that’s not to say the power-nap isn’t useful to refresh the mind and body.

How your brain solves problems while you sleep

cartoon of woman having an idea in her sleepThe Lancaster University team also provide some insights into how sleeping on a problem can be useful.

Your brain holds much more information and knowledge than you can always immediately recall. The classic example of this is remembering names. Have you ever struggled to remember someone’s name, only to suddenly remember it later?

So the researchers believe that sleep allows you to access the vast amount of information and knowledge in your brain that doesn’t immediately come to mind.

This is known as ‘spreading activation’, which allows your brain to seek other associations in your brain which might help solve the problem.

Can sleep help you be more creative?

There appears to be less specific research to identify if sleep can boost creativity. Equally, there are many stories where artists and scientists have apparently woken up to make their most notable contributions after long periods of frustration.

For example, it’s claimed that’s how Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev established the periodic table of elements.

Paul McCartney from the Beetles says he came up with the tune for the song “Yesterday” in a dream. And was inspired to write “Yellow Submarine” during the transition period between being awake and falling asleep.

One of the more bizarre stories is about the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. He was fascinated with the images which can come to you as you change between sleeping and waking.

The Persistence of Memory by salvador daliThese images, often termed hypnagogic hallucinations, can occur when falling asleep or waking up, and are often very vivid, colorful and bizarre.

His favorite technique to try and capture these moments was to put a tin plate on the floor and then sit by a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate.

He would then relax and start to fall asleep. As he did so the spoon would drop and clang on the plate, immediately waking him up to capture the surreal images.

More detail on this rather novel approach and possible explanations can be found here.

Can insomnia help creativity?

There are some who have a totally different view and argue that actually a lack of sleep or insomnia can help creativity.

Perhaps this is a result of the tired mind focusing on just one thing, as opposed to being full of lots of different thoughts. Or perhaps tiredness can lead to dreaming which helps creativity?

Again there are stories to support the theory. For example, the composer Marcel Proust wrote most of his À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) while staying awake in the night due to a chronic illness.

More recently, the musician Matt Berry explains how he wrote his new album during nocturnal sessions whilst suffering from insomnia.

But a word of caution if you’re tempted to try this approach: a lot of people commenting on articles about insomnia and creativity state how insomnia is extremely debilitating and they didn’t feel it helped their creativity.

So there appears to be little scientific evidence to support this suggestion. But it would be interesting to know if any readers feels their creativity has increased whilst suffering from insomnia.

Can dreams help you solve problems or be creative?

I think this is definitely one question where the jury is split. There are some who argue that by a process of ‘dream incubation’ you can influence your dreams to help you solve a problem or be more creative.

There are also some who argue that we can’t actually control your dreams in this fashion. There’s also a shortage of robust and meaningful research to support either view.

I suspect this is partly due to the difficulty of conducting scientific trials in the whole area of dreams. So I’ll just present one argument for each view and leave you to decide on which side of the fence you sit.

Dreams can help

Deirdre Barrett is a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School and is a world-renowned dream specialist. Her book, The Committee of Sleep, gives lots of anecdotal examples of how some of the most creative people describe using their dreams to help creative problem solving. She also defines the process as dream incubation.

Dreams can’t help

In 2004 a report by G. William Domhoff, a research professor in psychology and sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz,  stated:

When all is said and done, there is only occasional anecdotal evidence for the idea that recalled dreams have any role in solving or detecting problems. This evidence is not impressive when it is arrayed against the small percentage of dreams that are recalled and the even smaller percentage of recalled dreams that might be construed as having a solution to a problem.

A technique for using your dreams to solve problems

Even though there’s no clear evidence either way as to whether dreams can be harnessed in this way, perhaps you want to try yourself.

Deirdre Barrett has provided some guidelines, so you can try the following technique:

  •  Write down the problem as a brief phrase or sentence, and place this by your bed.
  •  Review the problem for a few minutes just before going to bed.
  •  Once in bed, visualize the problem as a concrete image if it lends itself to this. Visualize yourself dreaming about the problem, awakening, and writing on the bedside note pad.
  •  Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem just as you are drifting off to sleep.
  •  Keep a pen and paper, and perhaps also a flashlight or pen with a lighted tip, on the bedside table.
  •  Arrange objects connected to the problem on your table, or on the wall across from your bed if they lend themselves to a poster.
  • Upon awakening, lie quietly before getting out of bed. Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream, and invite more of the dream to return if possible. Write it down.

She goes on to say that this is a good starting point for the average person and that these steps make it much more likely that you’ll have a problem-solving dream.

The suggestion of keeping a notepad by the side of the bed so you can write down items you want to remember the next morning isn’t unusual.

This approach appears to help some people remember important ideas that might come to them in the middle of the night or whenever they’re sleeping.

Other people say that this notebook technique can set them off thinking even more about the topic and stops them sleeping.

Can sleep help with life’s many problems?

The research discussed above talks mainly about how sleep can help us solve specific maths or reasoning problems. But what about the many other worries and problems we face as part of everyday life?

These are often more complex and emotional. So what if this research was applicable to important decisions that need to be made or relationships that need to be mended and so on?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any similar research trials to see if sleep can actually help us resolve these types of problems.

On a personal level though, I’ve found that deciding to sleep on a problem can help to clarify the decisions I need to take. I suspect many other people have experienced the same effect.

Whether this is because your brain continues to work whilst asleep, or just a function of being less tired and stressed after a good night’s sleep is difficult to prove.

Another example you hear from management schools:  if you write a letter or e-mail whilst angry or frustrated, leave it as a draft overnight and see if you feel as strongly after sleeping on it. Often you’ll then probably decide to make your communication less aggressive.

Here at No Sleepless Nights, I also talk about the difficulty many people face with not being able to shut down an over-active mind when trying to sleep.

Continuing to focus on the many worries, anxieties and stresses that are a part of everyday work and life is a common cause of insomnia and other sleep disorders.

And so many insomniacs may prefer to take positive action to stop thinking about all their problems once they switch off the light at night, rather than focus on them.

Your view

This is clearly an area where the scientific evidence is still developing. So I’m very interested to hear if you’ve experienced any improvement in problem solving after sleep? Feel free to leave a comment below.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • As a teenager i was called a worm book..I read everything I possibly could..One day i read a Dream Book-unfortunate I can’t remember who wrote it..On the last chapter there was a note to those who want to practise their memory,mine was pretty good,but still decide to give it a try..I start to keep a diary of every dream i ever had,after few months i connect that with meditations..Imagine that..You actually can decide what you dream about,you can practice youre self to dream about someone,or something…And it does help with memory as well..

    • Hi Marta
      Thanks for your comment. I think you’re right in that with practise it is possible to influence the content of your dreams. I’m curious as to exactly how the memory improving worked? Can you remember exactly what the instructions were, or was it just simply the task of remembering your dreams?
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Maybe the old expression sleep on it doesn’t necessarily mean
    You have to sleep to solve a difficult problem ,whether during or after the
    sleep, but instead it just means You should wait until You calm down
    and start thinking more clearly, especially when You are angry,
    nervous or upset, still it would be great to have scientific evidence
    to support the theory and use it to develop problem solving techniques.
    As far as the technique to induce dreams that is something that I will
    definitely have to try,who wouldn’t like to have very pleasant dreams?.
    Great article.

    • Hi Callie
      Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Perhaps you’re right in that taking a breather can also help with problem solving, especially if it’s one which is causing you difficulty.
      Regards
      Ethan

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