Just sleep on it and the solution will come
I suppose many have read about recent research led by a leading expert on the benefits of napping at the University of California that suggests that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep enhances creative problem-solving. At last now when I get caught sleeping on the job I have the perfect excuse. The study by Sara Mednick and Denise Cai graduate student in the UC San Diego Department of Psychology showed that REM directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleep or wake state.
“We found that — for creative problems that you’ve already been working on — the passage of time is enough to find solutions,” said Mednick. “However, for new problems, only REM sleep enhances creativity.”
The reason why taking a nap or leaving a problem for a while works has been researched for many years – and there is indeed evidence that leaving a problem then returning to it later does lead to the solution or more creative ideas emerging. As far as the REM sleep part is concerned it is likely to be a correlational finding and not related to the cause and effect of what they observed.
I like this idea but I think a clearer reason for this effect from information processing theory perspective is the way the brain divides up a problem during solution generation. In the initial representation of the problem the issues are encoded in working memory and a solution strategy worked out usually drawing on longer term constructs in memory from the last time the problem was faced (say). This initial solution strategy in working memory is what we typically use to first tackle the problem – and using this strategy more detail is fleshed out and the problem becomes clearer and more closely defined. This more detailed nature of the problem becomes stored in Long Term Memory.
If we leave a problem for a while, sleep on it say, the initial working memory solution gets forgotten – working memory being more volatile – whilst the more detailed knowledge of the problem gets retained in Long Term Memory. When we return to the problem we remember all the enhanced details of the problem but have to re-construct and make up a new approach to solving ‘it’. As we have more detailed understanding of the problem to be solved a better approach emerges – almost magically. So it is likely that those who take a break from a problem and return to it later are able to solve ‘it’ more effectively due to a process of selective ‘forgetting’ of the initial attempt at a solution.
Thus this is where a strategy of self-regulating your approach to tackling a problem can win dividends. What you have to do is rather than going on with a problem until the bitter end is say to yourself – ‘hold on I am going to do something else for a while and do this tomorrow’. What this implies that in some circumstances to procrastinate and delay is actually the best strategy to solve a difficult problem and going on when you are banging your head against a wall is a fruitless exercise.