Sleep and the Problem-Solving Processes

We’re often told to “sleep on it” when we’re trying to solve a problem. Empirically, we know that this solution actually works – we go to sleep, stop thinking about the problem at hand, and manage to solve it once we tackle it again with a fresh mind.

Let’s explore the connection between sleep and our problem-solving processes.

How do we solve problems?

To find the solution to a particular problem, our brains need to come at it from different angles. We need to look at it in different ways, come up with different approaches, and follow them until we either solve the problem or fail to solve it.

The moment when we finally figure it out is known as insight, and it is the key to solving any problem. It’s basically about making sense of the issue, untangling it properly, and being able to reach the solution in what seems to be one fell swoop. In reality, it is the result of countless problem-solving processes our mind has gone through, even though it feels like it has happened in an instant.

One of the ways we can facilitate insight is known as incubation. Incubation is coming up with a solution after having stepped away from it, as opposed to working on a solution until we reach it without stepping away.

One of the best forms of incubation is sleep. We don’t really know exactly why sleep promotes problem-solving, but we have come to some interesting conclusions that link sleep to problem-solving processes, which we will now explain.

Working on a problem while we sleep

When we’re working on a problem but failing to solve it, our brain is coming up with all kinds of approaches and ways to tackle it. We then try to apply them, and they prove to be unsuccessful. As this keeps happening, we accumulate a lot of failed ideas and strategies that keep intruding on our thought processes and make it harder to solve the problem.

The more we try and fail, the less likely we are to solve the problem without taking a break.

When we simply step away and remain awake, choosing to occupy our mind with something else, it has the opportunity to rest and take a literal break from the problem.

When we sleep, all of our failed ideas and all the information we’ve accumulated that does not actually work is forgotten, and we only keep the ideas that will help. At least, that’s the idea. We can’t actually be sure, as the brain remains the least understood organ of the human body, but this is the best guess.

Sleep and making the right decision

The amount of sleep we get and how we make decisions are also intertwined. The less sleep we get, the more likely we are to make poorer and riskier decisions if the perceived reward is high. A study has shown that sleep-deprived individuals were more willing to make what is considered a risky decision if there was a reward at the end than those who had had enough sleep. This is partly due to the fact that when we are sleep-deprived, we tend to focus on the reward and not the consequences or the actual risk itself, meaning we are more likely to slip up and make the wrong decision.

When solving problems, a lack of sleep can prevent us from making the right decision, as we are unable to assess risks properly. Sleep deprivation also makes us unable to focus on the different aspects of a problem all at the same time, which is often required in problem-solving processes.

Lack of sleep and cognitive abilities

Lack of sleep can mess with all kinds of mental and physical processes. When we don’t get enough sleep, our mood suffers, we are much less able to focus and keep concentrating on the problem at hand, our thoughts wander, and our attention span is shortened. We’re also much less creative when we don’t get enough sleep, all of which means we’re simply less likely to solve a problem.

Even if we are perfectly armed with all of the problem-solving skills, knowledge, and tools needed to find the solution, chances are we’ll need more time to do it, and it will be a much less pleasant experience if we have not slept enough.

To conclude

As you can see, sleep and our problem-solving processes are inextricably linked. A lack of sleep will prevent us from being able to solve a problem, as it lowers our concentration and cognitive abilities. Sleeping on a problem, on the other hand, allows us to return to it with a fresh set of ideas, and ultimately come to the right solution.

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