The next time you are challenged and find yourself struggling for solutions, make sure you get a good night’s sleep. When we dream, our brains are often in the best position to solve problems and come up with innovations.
As recounted in the book Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David Randall, Jack Nicklaus was in a major slump just prior to the British Open in 1964. Something was really off with his swing. A few nights before the British Open, Nicklaus woke up from a dream in which he had been holding his club differently, adjusting his right arm to keep it steady through the swing. After waking up, Nicklaus realized this was the solution to his problem. He immediately went to the golf course, gripped his club just like he had dreamed, and his old stroke was back.
How did Nicklaus find a solution to his swing problem during his sleep? Or, how about other situations where the mind solves a problem without any conscious effort. Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday” after waking up with the melody in his head. Stephen King wrote Misery after dreaming about the plot while on a plane.
Biologists Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison theorized that we need to spend adequate time in REM sleep in order to clear out random bits of information stored during the day—small details we all encounter. Until that random stuff is cleared out, our brains can’t make important innovations related to the bigger challenges we face.
Researchers at the University of Lubeck in Germany tested the theory and found that subjects receiving adequate sleep discovered quick solutions and shortcuts to complex problems while those getting less-than-adequate sleep did not. Other research has shown that the more time we spend in REM sleep, the more we use dreams to find unique solutions to the problems we face. People who consistently reach deeper stages of sleep exhibit greater amounts of flexible thinking, which is critical for problem solving.
Are you struggling to increase efficiency, focus, and/or innovation? While there is no substitute for hard work, the other half of the process involves something entirely different. And that’s why we need to get a good night’s sleep.