When tough problems are on the table at work or in general, common advice is to sleep on it. One reason for this is to avoid rushing into decisions based on emotions. But we also associate rest with problem solving and learning--the theory being that your brain uses sleep to solidify memories, link information in novel ways and recognize patterns.

The trouble is, we haven't really had a way to offer the brain much direction on what problems to solve as we snooze. The best we've been able to do is just hope that we come up with a relevant answer for what we need.

But all that might be changing, according to a new study led by Kristin Sanders, a psychologist at Northwestern University. The work, published in the October issue of Psychological Science, asserts that we might be able to trigger problem solving in sleep.

Building Sound Associations for Creativity

For the research, Sanders and her team hypothesized that there might be a way to solve problems similar to the reorganization of memory during sleep. They gave 57 participants different brainteasers before they went to bed. The researchers also played unique sounds with each so that the participants would associate the different sounds and teasers together. Finally, the team played the sounds linked to them as the participants slept, keeping the audio loud enough to hear but not loud enough to interrupt the participants' slumber.

Prior to the audio experiment, those in the study had been able to solve only about 20.5 percent of the puzzles. But in the morning, participants were able to solve 31.7 percent of the puzzles the researchers had invoked with audio, an improvement of 55 percent.

The authors of the study assert that these results demonstrate that we can manipulate the brain's ability to solve problems, actually directing it to the issues we want answers for.

Of course, as the researchers note, the technique isn't going to do much for problems you don't have background knowledge for. It essentially just cues your brain about what issue to tackle. So it works for problems you already have all the pieces for, not as a way to bypass deficiencies in what you know.

Prime Your Brain With Sound for Work

Notedly, the size of the sample for this study is quite small--it would be good to repeat the experiment with a larger sample size. But assuming the results would hold with more participants, because of the way the researchers manipulated sleep in the study, the work is relatively simple to apply to your workday. Since you probably already use your favorite tunes to pass the time, anyway, the simplest option for building sound associations might be to be selective and consistent about which music tracks you listen to as you work on specific projects or tasks.

But you also can make a conscious effort to make a sound association in other ways, such as working on a job in a specific location that offers specific noises and recording some of those sounds to play on loop mode once you hit your pillow. Even something as making sure you have the same type of clock clicking away in your office and your bedroom might trigger your brain to get to work.

Sanders' work demonstrates that you can use science to your advantage to get past whatever creative hurdles you're facing on the job. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of American adults aren't getting the sleep they need. With sleep deprivation being such a serious problem among business leaders, it's more evidence that there are more beneficial ways to get answers than burning the candle at both ends.

But keep in mind that it's equally healthy to turn off the associations and let work stay at work once in a while, and in fact, that might let your brain come up with totally new ideas worth exploring. Build the associations you need through your day, but don't forget that part of the beauty of sleep and dreams is that you generally don't have any say in where they go.