How Getting More Sleep Can Help You Solve Your Creative Problems


Art Markman

April 27, 2015

We all know that we should probably be getting more sleep. And we’ve learned that sleep improves your mood, helps you to learn, clears your brain of toxins, and helps you concentrate. As if that weren’t enough, sleep has another benefit: It can help make you more creative.

To understand how, it is helpful to know a bit more about creativity. When you are trying to develop a creative solution to a difficult problem, you need to find some knowledge that you already have that will help you take a new approach. That means that a big part of creativity is allowing the problem to remind you of things you know about that probably come from another area of your expertise and that are relevant to your current problem. In short, you are seeking a good analogy.

For example, imagine a company that is trying to come up with a novel approach to ridding farm fields of weeds. One way to look for a new approach is to think of other industries that have tried to solve a similar problem. That is hard to do, because you are most often reminded of things that seem more directly relevant to the problem you’re solving. If you are thinking about weeds and plants, roots, and soil, then you will be reminded of other things you know about agriculture.

Generating creative ideas requires moving beyond the surface of the problem and finding an essence to the problem that deemphasizes the specific details. For example, you might characterize the central problem with killing weeds as a problem of avoiding collateral damage. After all, it isn’t hard to kill a weed. The difficulty is in killing weeds without killing the desirable plants around it.

Generating creative ideas requires moving beyond the surface of the problem and finding an essence to the problem.

In order for this strategy to succeed, you need to find the right description of the problem that will remind you of other things you know that are like the problem you want to solve. It turns out that sleep can help with that.

Your brain is active when you sleep. One of the things that happens during sleep is that memories consolidate. That is, the things you were exposed to during the day are solidified in memory. But not all aspects of the events you experienced are retained. Often, many of the extraneous details of a situation will be lost.

That means that after you sleep, your memory of the problem you are solving will contain fewer surface elements and more essential elements than it did when you first started thinking about it. When you return to the problem after sleeping, your description of the problem will retrieve different information from memory than it did before you slept. In particular, you are much more likely to be able to find an analogy after you have slept on a problem than you were before.

Just another benefit of getting a good night’s sleep.

This article was written by Art Markman from Fast Company and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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