The next time you’re stuck on a problem, try sleeping on it. After all: countless innovations are the result of approaching a problem in a new way, which can be best acheived with a clear — and rested — mind. This concept — that rehearsing tricky problems during sleep may help refine memories and improve problem-solving abilities upon awakening — served as the basis for a new paper by scientists at Northwestern University.
The results were published earlier this month in Psychological Science.
“We know that people rehearse or ‘consolidate’ memories during sleep, strengthening and reorganizing them,” Kristin Sanders, first author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, said in a statement.
“It’s also known that this natural process can be boosted by playing sounds associated with the information being rehearsed.”
Sanders’ team asked volunteers to complete several puzzles in the evening while listening to audio cues. When they slept, a program played sounds associated with puzzels they were unable to complete.
The following morning participants had less difficulty solving the puzzles associated with the sound cues they heard while sleeping.
“This study provides yet more evidence that brain processing during sleep is helpful to daytime cognition,” Mark Beeman, professor of psychology and a senior author of the study, said.
“In this case, if you want to solve problems or make the best decisions, better to sleep on it than to be on Twitter at 3 a.m.”
Not a quick fix
Researchers are quick to point out that increased problem-solving abilities only apply to situations where people already possess the information needed to solve the problem.
“For example, no matter how much sleep I get, I’m not going to suddenly figure out black holes or find a cure for a rare disease, because I don’t have the necessary background knowledge,” Beeman said — but added that if you are stuck on a problem in a subject you’re well-versed in, reflecting on it before bed might be all you need to solve it.