Learning New Skills? Sleep on it!

Living in “Internet time,” you’re probably used to being bombarded with information, making snap decisions, and needing to pick up new skills at the drop of a pixel. But a new study from researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital is the latest in a series suggesting that we’re not wired to work our best under time pressure.

The BIDMC and BWH researchers taught their subjects to distinguish between pairs of patterns (A beats B, B beats C, and so on) and then checked to see whether they could deduce facts they hadn’t been explicity taught (B beats E). Subjects tested after 20 minutes showed no ability to make inferences, those tested after 12 hours did better, but those tested after 12 hours including a night’s sleep performed the best.

This seems to confirm previous research showing that our unconscious mind makes better snap decisions on complex problems than our conscious reasoning, that all-nighters don’t help you learn, and that we can figure things out in our sleep that we don’t deduce if we stay awake. There may be many reasons that we need sleep, of course, but there’s a growing body of evidence that processing information and fitting it together is one of those reasons.

The bottom line for web workers? If you’re in your comfort zone, by all means keep pushing things out of your inbox as quickly as they fly in. But when you’re faced with complex and novel problems, especially ones that require you to fit together new ideas, sleeping on it might turn out to be the smartest thing you can do.


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