Can Sleep Make You Smarter?

We've all heard that sleep plays an important role in health, and most people have suffered through the misery of a work day spent sleep-deprived. When life gets stressful, it can be easy to convince yourself that you're better served by working one more hour instead of going to bed. And while this strategy might make you feel like you're being more productive, you're not necessarily working smarter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes that sleep deprivation is a public health crisis. A shocking number of adults—ranging from 2% to 7%, depending on age and sex—reported to the CDC that they fell asleep while driving during the last month, and 34% to 52% of adults report accidentally falling asleep during the day.

There's strong evidence that sleep plays a vital role in memory and learning. The best thing you can do to maximize your productivity could be getting some extra shuteye.

Creative Thinking

The perpetual grind of the daily workday can make it difficult to think outside the box; many people feel like they're just going through the motions. But a 2009 German study published in Nature argues that sleep can increase creative thinking the next day. Researchers found that when subjects got eight hours of sleep, they were more likely to discover a hidden rule in a math problem than people who got fewer than eight hours of sleep.

Emotional Thinking

You might think the disjointed dreams you have at night are little more than your mind playing tricks on you. But dreaming plays an important role in learning. Many researchers believe dreams help people process and make sense of the events of the day. This plays an important role in your emotional reactions. Without the emotion-processing benefits of dreams, you may feel drained, sad, or anxious.

Memory Formation

Sleep plays a significant role in memory. As you sleep, your brain encodes things into long-term memory. This process plays a significant role in knowledge. If, for example, you cram for an interview the night before, you might remember the facts you've learned for a few hours. But without adequate sleep, there's little hope that this information will be encoded into long-term memory, and this can greatly decrease your performance.

Big-Picture Thinking

In an increasingly competitive world, it's no longer enough to simply know something. You have to be able to make novel connections and step back and see the big picture. A 2007 study at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, for example, found that students were better at noticing hidden connections and observing the big picture when they had adequate asleep. Even students who were otherwise able to correctly answer simple problems could not display the same degree of big-picture thinking as students who got enough sleep.

Attention Span

No matter how smart you are or how well you've prepared for something, the inability to focus can wreck your ability to succeed. Sleep plays a powerful role in attention. When you don't get enough sleep, you expend more energy trying to stay awake, which can distract you from completing basic tasks. Even with the use of coffee and similar stimulants, if you've missed out on rapid eye movement sleep, you may still struggle to focus on a task.


  1. Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic. (2011, March 17). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from
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  4. To understand the big picture, give it time—and sleep. (2007, April 20). EurekAlert! Retrieved from