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Day tripper: New frontiers in napping

Written by Karen Long

What if there was a free exercise you could perform in just 20 minutes per day that would increase alertness and motor skills, clear your mind and improve memory, and even enhance creativity and perception? Science is proving that — far from being the exclusive domain of toddlers and slackers — napping can power acuity and productivity throughout the day for people of all ages and walks of life.

During the pandemic, many work-from-home adults discovered what Sara Mednick, Ph.D., revealed in her book “Take a Nap! Change your life.”

“We proved … that certain kinds of naps can produce improvements previously observed only after a full night of sleep.”

Dr. Mednick, a Harvard-trained research scientist who describes herself as “an inveterate napper,” is a leader in the field. After collaborating on a 2019 napping study involving 3,000 school children in grades 4–6, she explained the results on a recent podcast, “The Snooze Button.” When it came to academic performance, such as studying for a test, “There was really strong evidence that the more the kids were napping, the more frequently they napped, and the longer they napped, the better they were doing in school.”

Not only that, the napping kids showed similar positive results for grit — resilience and toughness in confronting daily obstacles — and a decrease in negative traits such as anxiety, depression and aggression.

In her book, Dr. Mednick explained that catching a few midday z’s is hardwired into our DNA, similar to animals. Both modern scientific experiments and historical patterns throughout various societies show that, left to our own devices, humans gravitate to “biphasic” slumber, consisting of six or seven hours of long sleep followed by a shorter sleep span in the middle of the day.

To this day China and Japan enjoy a culture of catnaps scheduled into the daily routines of all ages, including school children, college students and corporate desk jockeys. “The New York Times” even published an article featuring photos of Chinese consumers napping at Ikea — moms, dads, kids and grandparents, all putting sofas, chairs and beds through a test drive right in the showroom.

“While snoozing is prohibited at Ikea stores elsewhere, the Swedish retailer has long permitted Chinese customers to doze off, rather than alienate shoppers accustomed to sleeping in public.”

A quick 20 winks

In our own culture, where day sleeping is about as socially acceptable as day drinking, maybe some scientific tips and tricks will sway the nay-sayers. Dr. Mednick explained that the timing and length of a nap determines how refreshed you’ll feel afterwards — and how much it will affect your nighttime sleep. The interplay between sleep cycles and our body’s circadian rhythms will determine if we wake up feeling bright-eyed and bushy tailed or meaner than a junkyard dog.

Perhaps the proverbial 40 winks should actually be 20 winks. The first two stages of sleep are light, lasting about 20 minutes, but together they still increase alertness, motor skills and coordination. Any longer nap takes you into a “slow-wave” brain architecture, a deep sleep that is harder to wake up from.

The time of day you doze off is important for the impact on your nighttime sleep. A morning nap has been shown to have no effect on the length of nightly sleep — but a nap in late afternoon or evening could make it challenging to fall asleep later. “When we put a nap in the middle of the day, people were able to maintain their best performance — and in some cases even get better than their best performance,” said Dr. Mednick on the podcast.

A nap of 90 minutes — about the length of a movie — will give you time to soak up one complete sleep cycle with all the restorative benefits of stress relief, tissue restoration, fat metabolization, learning consolidation and more!

Bottom line: a 90-minute nap during morning or midday, or a 20-minute nap any time of day is the sweet spot to avoid waking up groggy in the middle of your deepest sleep.

The ball bearing nap

Stage 1 of sleep, while lasting only two to five minutes, has garnered a legendary following among artists, scientists and mystics seeking to connect with the dream-like subconscious imagery during this brief twilight as we drift off to sleep, also known as the hypnagogic nap.

One famous story describes how Thomas Edison practiced better engineering through napping. He would drift off in a chair while holding a fistful of ball bearings. Upon entering full unconsciousness at Stage 2 sleep, Edison’s hand would relax, releasing the ball bearings with a clatter into a metal bucket below and waking him, hopefully with new insights.

In her book, Medick described how German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé discovered the benzene ring. While pondering a chain of atoms, he dozed off in front of his fireplace and saw the chains undulating as winding snakes. When one snake curved around and seized its own tail to form a ring, Kekulé woke up instantly with a eureka moment: He was dealing not with a chain, but a ring.

“Powering through is not necessarily going to have you performing at your best at the end of the day,” Dr. Mednick said on the podcast. “But if you took, say, a 15-minute nap, you could really have your best performance lasting throughout the whole day.”

SOURCES

“Take a Nap! Change your life.” Sara Mednick, Ph.D.
“The Snooze Button” Podcast, The Art of The Nap with Dr. Sara Mednick
“Shh. It’s Naptime at Ikea in China.” The New York Times
“To Increase Creativity Thomas Edison Toggled The State Between Awake And Asleep,” Will Burns, Unleash Creativity blog

 
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