How To Solve A Problem? Science Says Sleep On It

4 min read

Last Modified 28 November 2022 First Added 9 March 2018

By Gemma Curtis

We’ve all been told to ‘sleep on it’ when we have a problem to solve.

Whether you’ve acted upon it or dismissed it as an old wives’ tale, the results won’t be the same for everyone. But, according to studies, there is truth in the idea that sleeping on a problem works to figure it out.

Sleep on it: problem-solving

A study by Lancaster University shows that sleep enhances our ability to solve difficult problems. In this case, a series of easy and hard word association questions were put forward to participants. In the ‘sleep’ group, participants were shown the problems in the evening and asked to try and solve them again in the morning. The ‘wake’ group were asked to solve them in the morning and then again in the evening.

The ‘wake’ group solved the easy problems efficiently. More importantly, the group that had been able to sleep on it managed to drastically improve their ability to solve the harder puzzles.

Woman struggling to solve a problem, needing to sleep on it

Head researcher, Padraic Monaghan says:

‘This research gives us some guidance on improving our day-to-day approach to solving problems. If it is a difficult problem, set it aside overnight, and return to it the next day. Even if you’ve already made a complex decision, reappraising it briefly the next day is more likely to result in the best choice you can make.’

So, even if you think your mind is made up, being able to sleep on it can lead to better insight the next day. You might even end up changing your mind.

Read more: Mental Health And The Importance Of Sleep

Enhancing creativity

Solving life’s problems isn’t always just about coming up with the right answer. When it comes to emotional issues, broaching tricky subjects with loved ones or trying to remain diplomatic, we often need to compromise. That’s where creativity comes in.

Different parts of our brain are responsible for different jobs. When we go to sleep, these areas work in other ways, allowing us to grow and recover from the day’s events.

Sara C. Mednick, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, has research indicating that REM sleep might enhance creative problem-solving. According to an article by WebMD, REM sleep can help the brain associate seemingly unrelated ideas.

Mednick’s research has highlighted a relationship between two areas of the brain and their shift in responsibility during sleep. In the daytime, the hippocampus is the place where memories are created and held. Once we go to sleep, the hippocampus does too, meaning the stored information is transferred to the neocortex. WebMD says, ‘Once a memory or experience reaches the neocortex, it can be associated with all the other memories.’

Man unable to sleep because of problems

Related: What Happens In Your Brain While You Dream?

But how does this help with problem-solving?

Your short-term memories serve a purpose, such as remembering a password to get into an online account or remembering someone’s name you’ve only met once, so you don’t look rude. Once these memories are stored in your neocortex, they’re free to connect with other memories, such as ‘I need to solve this problem’.

So, the name of that person might inspire a connection with another memory that gives you the answer to your problem.

Our brains are wonderful things!

How to enhance creativity in sleep to solve your problem

If you’re hoping to be inspired or come up with a creative puzzle solution, try doing these things.

  • Optimise your sleep space – make sure the room is dark, a comfortable temperature with no noises or distractions.
  • Write down your problem or query and leave the notebook beside your bed.
  • When you wake up, write down all your ideas, no matter how silly. These may end up forming your solution abstractly!
  • Go back and look at your ideas from previous days until you solve the issue.

Take a look at our sleep problems articles for further advice on sleep. Let us know whether trying to ‘sleep on it’ worked for you in the comments.

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