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Can a Siesta Really Raise Your IQ?

Nap more, get smarter.

Well, maybe not your IQ, but recent research does indicate that an afternoon nap can increase your mental abilities, learning and memory - better than a cup of coffee. You have undoubtedly seen the commercials for energy drinks to get you up and going through the afternoon hours. After lunch is a time when the human brain is naturally at a low point and in need of rest. Research has shown and our experience confirms that our brains work on a circadian (24 hour) schedule and after about 16 hours of continuous wakefulness our mental abilities decline. It is time to sleep. Sleep helps clear the mind and prepare us for another day.

But what about the familiar sleepiness we feel after lunch? New research is showing that the well-known afternoon low may be part of a biphasic sleep schedule. The concept of the siesta, the afternoon break and nap, may be a good idea. Americans often envy people in Spain and Latin America where they still take a siesta. We tend to have a cup of coffee or an energy drink and stare blankly at the computer screen until our circadian rhythm reaches the point of increasing alertness. The circadian system helps us stay awake until bedtime by making us more alert despite having been awake for many hours.

Research at the University of California, Berkley headed by Matthew Walker, has shown that an afternoon nap not only helps restore alertness but also improves neurocognitive functioning to a higher level than before the nap. In one of these studies, participants who took a 90 minute nap at 2:00 PM had better performance on a learning task  at 6:00 PM than participants who stayed up all day.

Walker's research group believes that this improvement occurs because of the way in which memories are transferred from temporary and limited storage in the hippocampus into the larger and more permanent storage in the prefrontal cortex. Sleep, especially stage 2 sleep, seems to be the time when this transfer occurs. Incidentally, midday naps, particularly if they are 45 minutes or shorter consist primarily of stage 2 sleep. As executives and high tech workers have discovered, the short afternoon or "power" nap can have a dramatic effect on improving alertness and learning ability.

It seems tragic that over the years many people have been fired for sleeping on the job, when often they were suffering from a sleep disorder or where doing something that could actually improve their performance for the rest of the day. As we learn more about sleep and how it affects health, we can use this knowledge to help our selves attain better functioning and health.