.The old adage to “sleep on a problem” was quite wise. Scientists have concluded that sleep indeed can boost problem-solving abilities. The researchers wanted to know whether “incubating” a question by sleeping on it allowed a flash of insight. Apparently it does, especially when the sleeper enters a phase of sleep known as REM (rapid eye movement sleep).
To come to this conclusion, the researchers gave 77 participants a series of creative problems to solve. Half the group mulled the problem over while remaining awake, while the other half took a nap monitored by the scientists. An analysis of the results showed that the volunteers who had entered REM sleep – when most dreams occur – were better able to solve a problem requiring lateral thinking (i.e. solving problems by approaching them from various angles).
During the study, the individuals who entered REM sleep during their nap were 40 percent more likely to accomplish problem-solving tasks than those who had only quiet rest or non-REM sleep. It therefore appears that the quality of sleep is very important to our problem-solving ability, as opposed to simply the amount of time spent in bed.
These researchers believe REM sleep allows the brain to create new nerve connections without the interference of other thought pathways that are active when we’re awake or in dreamless sleep. REM sleep would thus play a crucial role in assimilating new knowledge and in creating a rich network of associations between new and old information, ready for use in solving future enigmas.
This research therefore suggests that it is sometimes better to allow ourselves a few hours of restorative sleep rather than to spend a sleepless night trying to solve a difficult problem.