We've all decided to "sleep on it" when confronted with a difficult choice to make, hoping that a good night's sleep and fresh perspective in the morning will make the decision a little easier. One study from Lancaster University and published in the journal Memory and Cognition shows that sleeping on it really does help us tackle tough problems.
Photo by Africa Studio (Shutterstock).
It may seem like common sense, but if you're struggling with a major decision or life change to ponder, trying to power through it and make it on the fly may not serve you as well as getting a good night's sleep and approaching the problem freshly the next day after a little rest. Here's what the researchers found:
We presented participants with a set of remote-associate tasks that varied in difficulty as a function of the strength of the stimuli–answer associations. After a period of sleep, wake, or no delay, participants reattempted previously unsolved problems. The sleep group solved a greater number of difficult problems than did the other groups, but no difference was found for easy problems. We conclude that sleep facilitates problem solving, most likely via spreading activation, but this has its primary effect for harder problems.
Essentially, when presented with difficult problems, people who tried to solve them immediately and those without rest fared worse than the people who had the opportunity to sleep on their answers and approach the problem again after sleeping. The researchers qualify the conclusion with the fact that this only worked for difficult problems — when it came to easy choices, sleep wasn't terribly beneficial (which makes sense — when's the last time you felt the need to sleep on it when faced with an easy problem to solve?)
So the next time you have a big choice to make, give yourself a day to sleep on it. If you want to read more about the methodology or the study results, the whole text is available for free at the link below.
Sleep On It, but Only If It Is Difficult: Effects of Sleep on Problem Solving [Memory and Cognition via SpringerLink]