In a new study, researchers found people actually might solve a problem better if they “sleep on it.”
In fact, the researchers were able to improve problem-solving upon waking by manipulating a critical process during sleep.
The study provides important information about information processing during sleep, as well as incubation for problem-solving—why we sometimes solve a problem better after a break.
The research was conducted by a team from Northwestern University.
It is known that people rehearse or ‘consolidate’ memories during sleep, strengthening and reorganizing them.
It’s also known that this natural process can be boosted by playing sounds associated with the information being rehearsed.
Because many tricky problems are solved by thinking of them in a new way, the team hypothesized that rehearsing unsolved problems during sleep would help people refine their memories of the problems, and improve their chance to solve them the next day.
In the study, people attempted several puzzles in the evening while listening to specific sound cues.
While they slept, a program presented sounds associated with half the puzzles they had failed in the evening.
The following morning participants solved the puzzles that had the associated sound cues played overnight better, compared to the puzzles that got no cues.
This shows the evidence that brain processing during sleep is helpful to daytime cognition
The team says if people want to solve problems or make the best decisions, better to sleep on it than to be on Twitter at 3 a.m.
The research is the first demonstration of actually improving problem-solving by targeting memories for unsolved problems for extra processing during sleep.
It strengthens the suggesting sleep reorganizes memory, and suggests that problem-solving may benefit from sleep due to rehearsal and consolidation of problem memory.
However, the research may only apply to situations where people have the background information they need to solve the problem and just haven’t found the right configuration yet.
The lead author of the study is Kristin Sanders, a doctoral student in psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.
The study is published in Psychological Science.
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