We've all had the experience of worrying about and over analysing a problem all day that seems impossible to overcome – it's niggling at you, and you can't find the answer.
Then you go to bed, perhaps tossing and turning over your worry, only to wake up the following morning and realise that it isn't so complicated after all – indeed, you've found the answer.
It wasn't the good night's sleep that did the trick, however. New research by brain scientists has found that our problem-solving abilities work much better when we're in unconscious thought than when we're thinking about something too hard.
The study by Professor Alex Pouget, of the University of Rochester in New York State, turns conventional wisdom on the issue on its head. Indeed, a pair of neuroscientists earned the Nobel prize in 2002 for their conclusion that humans rarely make rational decisions, but Pouget has found that this is not so. Humans make very good decisions most of the time, but only when they're not thinking about it.
“Most of the decisions we make aren't based on conscious reasoning,” he says, “You don't consciously decide to stop at a red light or steer around an obstacle on the road.”
Instead, most people simply “realise” a course of action is the right one, and don't have to work out the averages or percentages of getting it right. Sitting around poring over |a problem is actually the |least effective method of resolving it.
The brain is perfectly geared to making rational decisions based on the information it has to work with, and most of the time they're the right ones. It's only when we try to force it that it doesn't work.
“Once we started looking at the decisions our brains make without our knowledge, we found that they almost always reach the right decision,” Prof Pouget added.
This is marvellous news of course. It means we can solve the entire recession and credit crisis simply by sending the Cabinet to bed early.
In particular, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan, who, let's face it, hasn't been getting much kip lately, could be despatched to the leaba immediately and told to wake up when his brain has worked out what went wrong.
Remember, he was the one who told us he only “realised” there was some kind of problem with the banks during the summer when the rest of conscious thought, and George Lee had been yelling at him, about it for ages.
Brian, you need to nod off, your conscious brain is clearly working too hard. A nice mug of Ovaltine and a soft pillow should do the trick.
The collective bankers of the country have been a bit sleepy of late too, but obviously not productively. They need to get some serious shut-eye and let their brains work out how on earth they can get themselves out of the mess they put us in. It all seems so clear.
You see, up to now, we'd assumed, entirely wrongly, that paying someone very smart millions of euro to do his job was just the ticket. How stupid we've been! All they needed was a soft bed and some whale music and their unconscious brain could wander off and come back with real decisions that won't cost the rest of us our pensions.
Mind you, it doesn't seem to work for everyone. George W Bush has been asleep for most of the last eight years and made hardly any useful decisions in that time. But his former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, knew the power of the unconscious brain.
He won the Society of Plain English's foot-in-mouth award in 2002 for his ‘clarification' |at a defence briefing: “There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know.”
Who knew? And how right |he was. Clearly somebody |was nodding off with good intentions during the Bush administration.
So perhaps our own Government will take note, especially with a nice, big, long break |to enjoy, and where better |than tucked up in bed in the |National Interest.
And so to sleep… perchance to dream, or hopefully solve |the world crisis. Now, where's that pillow?