“Sleep On It”: Complex Decisions Are Best Left For Your Unconscious Mind To Work Out

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “sleep on it” a million times throughout your life. Before any important decision in your life someone has probably told you to “sleep on it” before you act. Conventional wisdom suggests that by “sleeping on it” we clear our minds and relieve ourselves of the stress of making a decision. Sleep also helps organize our memories, process the information of the day, and solve problems.

It’s a mystery why humans and other animals sleep. Theories suggest that it has to do with memory consolidation to benefit other physiological or neural functions.

 A new theory holds that sleep is merely a good way to increase an animal’s efficiency, by hunting only when the hunting is good, for example, and minimize its risk: The risk of an accident goes down when you’re sleeping.

Researchers suggest that unconscious thought, contrary to the way many of us think about it, is an active, goal-directed thought process. The main difference in unconscious thought is that the usual biases that are a part of our conscious thinking are absent. During unconscious thought we leave our egotistical and judgemental selves in our conscious realm.

In the Netherlands a controlled experiment took 352 undergraduates from the University of Amsterdam and asked them to predict the outcome of four different upcoming soccer matches. Participants expertise in soccer was calculated, and then they were asked to predict the result of each of the four upcoming soccer matches.

“Then participants were divided into three experimental conditions. In the immediate condition, participants saw the four matches on the computer screen and were asked to provide their answers in 20 seconds.”

“In both conscious thought and unconscious-thought conditions, participants saw the four matches on the computer screen for 20 seconds and were told they would have to predict the outcomes later on.”

“Conscious-thought participants were told they had an additional 2 min to think about the matches. Unconscious thought participants were told they would do something else for 2 min and performed a two back task designed to occupy conscious processing.”

A second experiment was conducted on another group of undergraduates to replicate the findings and understand more about the underlying process.

“These experiments demonstrate that among experts, unconscious thought leads to better predictions of soccer results than either conscious thought or quick, immediate guesses.

“Experiment 2 sheds light on why this may be so: Unconscious thinkers seem to be better at using the appropriate information to arrive at their estimates. Unconscious thinkers who had more accurate knowledge about the single best prediction world ranking made better predictions. This was not true for conscious thinkers or for immediate decision makers.”


Research led by a leading expert on the positive benefits of napping at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine suggests that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep enhances creative problem-solving. The findings may have important implications for how sleep, specifically REM sleep, fosters the formation of associative networks in the brain.

The study by Sara Mednick, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System, and first author Denise Cai, graduate student in the UC San Diego Department of Psychology, shows that REM directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleep or wake state. Their findings will be published in the June 8th online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“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 researchers hypothesize that the formation of associative networks from previously unassociated information in the brain, leading to creative problem-solving, is facilitated by changes to neurotransmitter systems during REM sleep.

Any way you want to look at it, sleep is important!


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5 Responses to “Sleep On It”: Complex Decisions Are Best Left For Your Unconscious Mind To Work Out

  1. This is akin to what I call listening on my blog. Listening can be done while awake, but is much easier when asleep. Use whatever fancy medical charts you like, listening is merely quieting your conscious mind and allowing your soul to speak to you. When you are asleep this process is natural. Our conscious mind shuts off and our sub-conscious takes over. If we are already worried about something when we fall asleep, our minds will continue to work on that problem, but without having to deal with the conscious thoughts getting in the way.

    With practice this can be done while awake as well. Important decisions can be left to sleep on, or we can simply quiet our mind and listen to the answer. It will always come. That is the little voice in our head, or the gut feeling we get that is always right. Usually we don’t recognize it until it is over and too late. But it was there, telling us what to do all along. We just need to listen.

  2. I think my mind is more active when I’m asleep… the things that carry on through my head… memory consolidation, and leaving the usual biases and judgements at the door… my head is one serious head case.. 🙂 Good post though.

  3. Clip Snark says:

    Sleep is so fascinating. I love this episode of NOVA:

    Or any episode of NOVA, really.

  4. It would be my hope that more and more doctors would have people tested for things like sleep apnea rather than prescribing meds. I don’t think people appreciate how important sleep is, let alone good, healthy sleep.
    Thanks for the post.

  5. Frank Wallace says:

    So true. I have noticed that when stumped to complete a crossword puzzle (for example), that if I take it up the next morning it usually goes easier. It was interesting to read of this research. Thanks.

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