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What Happened When We Tried Sleeping On Our Problems

Sleep helps us make mental connections, but after last week’s habit challenge we don’t advise counting on it to solve complicated problems.

What Happened When We Tried Sleeping On Our Problems
[Photo: Flickr user Petras Gagilas]

Sleep is a strange and wondrous thing.

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According to various research, it helps repair and rejuvenate our bodies, boost our moods and memory, and, interestingly, even spurs our creativity.

By assisting the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories and forging connections among them, sleep has been found to improve our abilities to come up with creative solutions to problems. One neurologist at Harvard Medical School even found that if an incubation period–a time in which a person leaves an idea for a while–includes sleep, people are 33% more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas.

Last week we thought we’d put sleep to the test and see if it could work to our problem-solving advantage. Each night we asked ourselves the questions we’d been wrestling with in our work or personal lives, thereby giving our brains something to ruminate on as we slept.

While in a few instances we’ve found sleeping on it to be a helpful problem-solving remedy, and we’re not disputing the science behind this experiment, we were somewhat disappointed to find that, for the most part, those aha! moments we were looking for are generally reserved for the Sherlock Holmeses of the world.

When It Worked

During last week’s habit challenge, we only saw one instance ofaha!-ness.

Co.Design senior writer Mark Wilson went to bed Sunday night with one question in mind: What was he going to get his wife for Christmas? “In the middle of the night, I woke with all sorts of random thoughts in my head, and like a beacon, I realized what I should get her–something I’d thought of months back.” Alas, this was the only moment last week he awoke with an obvious solution to his problem.

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While the rest of us went through the week without any revelations, this isn’t to say that we’ve never problem solved in our sleep.

Fast Company contributor Susan Karlin recalls that a number of years ago she was stumped on how to organize a particular story she was writing. “I’d done a couple of passes, but none of my attempts were working. That night I asked myself to work on it while I was sleeping. I actually dreamt myself moving paragraphs around. In the morning I had the solution.”

Karlin says that sleep has also helped her work out anger and frustration so she can deal with the situation in a more diplomatic fashion in the morning–“I’ll find myself yelling everything I really want to say to them in my dreams”–and it even helped her decorate a new apartment by allowing her to reconfigure furniture around the rooms in her dreams.

When It Didn’t

While we’ve seen that sleeping on our problems can bring us immediate solutions in the morning, doing so on command was much harder than we’d hoped and didn’t work for most of us, at least not obviously so.

It’s possible the solutions our minds devised were too subtle to notice. Eventually I was able to figure out the answers to some of my problems; the solutions just didn’t come to me in an aha! moment as soon as I woke up.

A few days after sleeping on whether or not I should purchase a particular wedding dress, for example, I did. But the morning I expected the solution I woke up feeling just as torn on the issue as when I had gone to sleep.

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Another reason, Wilson offers, is that our nightly ruminations occur naturally, and this is not necessarily an impulse we can control or count on. Additionally, “I do think that few of us live lives where our litany of real problems have simplistic answers that can be solved in a single night of sleep,” he says.

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About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for FastCompany.com’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on PopPhoto.com, AOL.com, and elsewhere

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