Why ‘Sleep on It’ Is Good Advice For Stressful Situations
If there is one undisputed common wisdom in this day and time, it is that of “sleeping on something” that perturbs us. Tired after a long day at work? Fought with a friend? Vexed about a major decision? Just sleep on it. It has become shorthand for giving a problem some time and space — to come back to it better prepared at an unsaid point in the future.
But does “sleeping on something” really help us gain clarity on it? Or, is it just an excuse to postpone making a decision until the last moment? Being aware that I’m a serial procrastinator, I often wonder if it’s a tactic people of my ilk have come up with to put things off for as long as possible. Science, however, disagrees with this musing. Turns out, sleeping on things is indeed sagacious advice.
Much of it has to do with the recuperative effects sleep has to offer. “If you’re having a problem in life or at work, analyze the problem and its possible solutions, [then] sleep on it before making a final decision… Different pieces of paper are filed in different portions of the brain, and the pathways to access those different files are consolidated [during] sleep,” says Russell Sanna, executive director of sleep medicine at Harvard University. In other words, our brain subconsciously works to arrange stray information in our minds when we sleep. This changes the way we perceive problems in the first place.
Further, different brain regions “need to be well-connected in order to effectively generate and adjust our emotional responses. This is where sleep comes in. When we’re sleep-deprived, the connections between these areas weaken… If you’re well-rested, you are more likely to be able to effectively problem solve,” Joanne Bower, a lecturer in psychology at the University of East Anglia, wrote in The Economic Times.
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A 2012 study found that participants, who slept on the problems they were asked to attempt, were able to solve them better. “We’ve known for years that sleep has a profound effect on our ability to be creative and find new solutions to problems… Sleep appears to help us solve problems by accessing information that is remote to the initial problem, that may not be initially brought to mind,” explained Padraic Monaghan, a professor of cognition at Lancaster University’s department of psychology, who had co-authored the study.
Further, sleep can strengthen the memories we formed in our waking hours — besides linking them to information we already have in our brain. This indubitably helps with better decision-making. “Memories seem to become more stable in the brain during the deep stages of sleep. After that, REM [Rapid Eye Movement] — the most active stage of sleep — seems to play a role in linking together related memories, sometimes in unexpected ways. That’s why a full night of sleep may help with problem-solving,” reads an article in the monthly newsletter by the U.S.’s National Institutes of Health.
At the same time, the said REM sleep does a lot to cushion the emotional turbulence. The article goes on to state also that, “REM sleep also helps you process emotional memories, which can reduce the intensity of emotions.” This is not to say that emotions mustn’t play any role in decision-making. What it suggests, instead, is that a good night’s sleep might help us balance our emotions against cold, hard logic while arriving at a decision.
Interestingly, though, the researchers from the 2012 study found that the impact was seen only on “difficult” problems; sleeping on “easy” problems didn’t have any major influence on their outcomes. So, it might be prudent to sleep on major decisions about one’s career or love life, but decisions about which restaurant to order from, may not warrant an eight-hour sleep — unless, of course, one is sleepier than they’re hungry.