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July 8, 2012

Have a problem? Sleep on it!

by Marina

I’ve noticed for a long time now that whenever I am presented with a problem or a challenge, especially related to creative work, I’d often leave things till the end.

If I had a few days to come up with a design, I’d start working on it on day one, but then switch to doing something else, and then come back to the design challenge a day later.

All the time in between I’d often use to do things like reading, browsing the web, basically anything but the design work.

At first, I thought I was simply procrastinating and delaying the real work. At the same time, I somehow felt that I needed all that time to process the problem internally first, especially if I could “Sleep on it”.

For some reason, finding a solution or an inspiration was always easier the next day, or at least, that’s how it felt.

I actually have a long history of solving problems at night.

One of my early childhood memories is from the time when I was around 5 or 6. I remember it was summer at my grandma’s house. All kids were making rings out of candy paper wrappers, but I couldn’t. Everyone was showing me how to do it and I’d try and try again, but nothing worked.  My struggle to make a single ring out of a candy wrapper bothered me all day.

At night, I was still thinking about this problem. Finally, in my dream, I could see clearly how it’s done, in a sort of 3D slow motion. When I woke up that morning, the first thing I did, I grabbed candies and started making tons of rings from candy wrappers. I was very excited about that and remember running around telling everyone “I did it! I did it!”.

My grandma was actually the first person to tell me the phrase “Sleep on it”, when it came to solving problems. Not sure if she told me that phrase before or after my dream about the ring. Thinking about that now, it seems so strange that she was an uneducated person, who couldn’t even read, but she somehow knew that it’s easier to solve problems after having a sleep.

I am, of course, is not the only one person in the world who’s been experiencing this. There are other examples of people solving problems or even making discoveries in their dream.

Brilliant Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev discovered his Periodic Table of Elements in a dream.

On the night of February 17, 1869, the Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev went to bed frustrated by a puzzle he had been playing with for years: how the atomic weights of the chemical elements could be grouped in some meaningful way–and one that, with any luck, would open a window onto the hidden structure of nature. He dreamed, as he later recalled, of “a table where all the elements fell into place as required.” His intuition that when the elements were listed in order of weight, their properties repeated in regular intervals, gave rise to the Periodic Table of the Elements–which, though much revised since, underlies modern chemistry.
~Paul Strathern, “Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements”

A similar story is associated with the discovery of the ring shape of benzene molecule by German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé.

He said that he had discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a reverie or day-dream of a snake seizing its own tail (this is a common symbol in many ancient cultures known as the Ouroboros or Endless knot). This vision, he said, came to him after years of studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds. ~Wikipedia

Don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that in Russia, during the Soviet times, engineers were even given extra week of vacation, because it was believed that engineers don’t stop working when they go home – they continue solving problems even after hours.

Recently, I’ve read a book called “Brain Rules” by molecular biologist, John Medina, where I finally learned that there is a scientific proof of this theory – sleep is linked to our ability to solve problems!

Mountains of data demonstrate that a healthy sleep can indeed boost learning significantly, in certain types of tasks…  Sleep has been shown to enhance tasks that involve visual texture discrimination, motor adaptations, and motor sequencing. The type of learning that appears to be most sensitive to sleep improvement is that which involves learning a procedure.
~ John Medina, Brain Rules

In his book John Medina mentions one study that stands out in particular.

Students were given math problems and were told that there was an easy way to solve them, a sort of a shortcut. Researchers wanted to know if there was a way to jumpstart or speed up their insights. Well, apparently, there is a way to do that – if you allow people to sleep on it!

In 12 hours after students were given math problems, about 20% of students would discover the shortcut. However, if they were allowed to sleep for 8 hours out of those 12 hours, that number would triple to about 60%. And no matter how many times they ran those tests, sleep group would normally outperform non-sleep group 3 to 1.

So if you have a problem to solve, don’t feel bad about taking a nap or going to bed earlier.

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