‘Sleeping On It’ Works for Difficult Problems

If a complex issue is weighing you down, nabbing some solid Zzzs might help you solve it, new research confirms.

Some adages about sleep and your emotional health — think “don’t go to bed angry” — don’t necessarily ring true, experts say.

But the famous saying “sleep on it” recently got a boost from researchers at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. They tested whether sleep or time spent awake helped people solve problems and found that sleeping works as a problem solver — but for difficult problems only. The results of the research are published in the journal Memory & Cognition.

In the study, 61 adults were given easy and more difficult verbal insight problems to solve either immediately, following sleep, or following time spent working on the problem while awake. The sleep group solved more difficult problems than the other group, but for easy problems, researchers found no difference between the two groups.

This, they say, shows that sleep facilitates problem solving.

“We’ve known for years that sleep has a profound effect on our ability to be creative and find new solutions to problems,” explained study author Padraic Monaghan, PhD, in a release. “Our study shows that this sleep effect is greatest when the problems facing us are difficult.”

The reason, he says, is that sleep might help our brains access information we possess but that is not initially brought to mind. “Sleep has been proposed to ‘spread activation’ to the solution that is initially distant from our first attempts at the problem,” he says. “The advice stemming from this and related research is to leave a problem aside if you’re stuck, and get some sleep if it’s a really difficult problem.”

More Ways Sleep Boosts Your Mental Health

Sleep is for more than just problem solving: Numerous studies have demonstrated sleep’s power over other areas of mental health, showing that it can help you achieve:

  • A better mood. Sure, a lack of sleep can make you grumpy, but chronic sleep deprivation can do a whole lot worse. There’s a link between insomnia and depression, National Sleep Foundation data indicates, while people with sleep apnea are also more likely to be depressed.
  • A happier marriage. Wives who had tr
  • ouble sleeping were more likely to be irritable and critical of their spouses the next day, according to a study presented at the 2011 meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

  • Less stress. Compare how you perform at work when you’re well rested versus sleep-deprived, and it’s easy to see that sleep helps you take on the day’s challenges better. And data from the National Sleep Foundation backs up this claim. In an NSF survey, more than 85 percent of respondents who got inadequate sleep said it affects their mood, 72 percent said it affects their family life or home responsibilities, and 68 percent said it hinders their social lives.

By Annie Hauser