Pop quiz: What can make you smarter in as little as 20 minutes, costs nothing, and you must do with your eyes closed?
One of my favorite topics is the benefits of napping. I can’t get enough of studies that confirm that a so-called “biphasic sleep” sleep schedule—sleeping in two spurts during the 24-hour day, which typically means sleeping at night and then taking a siesta in the afternoon—is an ideal way to keep your brain sharp, prepared to learn new things, and feel refreshed. No wonder some of our most historic brains are noted fans of napping:
- Albert Einstein,
- Thomas Edison,
- Napoleon Bonaparte,
- Ronald Reagan,
- Bill Clinton,
- the list goes on...
Brahms napped at the piano while composing his famous lullaby. Winston Churchill scheduled his cabinet meetings around his naps, alleging that he required a daily afternoon nap in order to cope with his wartime responsibilities. Some of today’s top athletes and Olympians take long naps in the afternoons as part of their training regimen. Their naps are as important as their daily exercise.
And Leonardo Da Vinci took the concept of biphasic sleeping to extreme. He was known for “polyphasic” sleep, getting his winks in four-hour intervals. Is that what allowed him to be so innovative and ingenious?
Earlier this year, a new study out of the University of California, Berkeley, shows that an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power. Some of the most interesting findings:
- Pulling an all-nighter (attention college students) decreases the ability to cram in new facts by nearly 40 percent, due to a shutdown of brain regions during sleep deprivation.
- Sleep is needed to clear the brain’s short-term memory storage and make room for new information. It’s like clearing out an over-stuffed email box. By midday, your brain’s waiting room for memory storage—the hippocampus—could use a clean-up so it can welcome new information.
- This refreshing of memory capacity is related to Stage 2 non-REM sleep, which takes place between deep sleep (non-REM) and the dream state known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM). This might explain why we spend at least half of our sleeping hours in Stage 2.
Since 2007, we’ve known that fact-based memories are temporarily stored in the hippocampus before being sent to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which may have more storage space.
So, what makes an ideal nap? Here’s The Sleep Doctor’s Guide to Napping™:
- 8 and 30: Aim to take a nap 8 hours after your wake time, but no later than 3:30 pm (otherwise it could disrupt your ability to fall asleep that night, especially if you’re early to bed). Set aside 30 minutes, since it may take you 10 minutes to fall asleep (if you feel asleep much faster you are likely sleep deprived and you really need a nap), which leaves 20 minutes for the power nap. Use an alarm clock.
- Get comfortable: Shake off your shoes, recline on a couch or bed (if available), or in a chair. Turn off or dim the lights, or use an eye mask to block distracting light. Get a blanket to stay warm.]
- Don’t get uncomfortable: The thought of taking a nap in the middle of the day, especially a busy work day, might sound crazy to some (like friends and co-workers). Get over it! Remember, some of the most celebrated and productive (and smart and creative and innovative) people in history were huge nappers.
- Nap Safely: Only nap in a safe environment.
If anyone gives you a hard time catching a few winks in the afternoon, just tell them that you’re working on your brain power. And that they, too, could use the brain boost if they’re acting so misinformed. They need mental space for the facts about napping!
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™