The best test of will power is on a warm, soporific summer afternoon when all you want to do is curl up on your bed and have a good snooze. Instead, you’re stuck in an office, staring at a screen that displays what appears to be gibberish! At such times, I always remember the animated feline, Tom, and wish I could employ similar techniques to keep myself awake.
However, forcefully trying to keep yourself awake is about as good as sleeping, since your brain isn’t able to process very much in such a state. In such a situation, the superhero that saves the day is a ‘power nap’! Power naps are not impossible or a myth, as many people believe. In fact, they are a scientific phenomenon that can help you reap the benefits of sleep without being knocked out for a long period of time.
We will look at what a power nap is shortly, but first we need to discuss some sleep cycle basics before we can understand power naps properly.
Sleep researchers distinguish 5 stages of sleep, which together make up one sleep cycle of 90 to 110 minutes. During the entire night, you go through multiple sleep cycles before waking up. The sleep stages are characterized by different rates and natures of neuronal firing and other bodily changes that are specific to certain stages. The characteristics of each are described briefly below.
Stage 1: Light sleep stage. A person can be awoken very easily. People experience dreamlike imagery related to the day’s experience. Muscle activity and eye movement slows down (Theta waveform). Lasts for roughly 10 minutes.
Stage 2: Eye movements stop and brain waves become slower; an occasional burst of rapid brain waves called sleep spindles is experienced. Your brain is moving towards the deep sleep stage.
Stages 3 and 4: These are the deep sleep stages where no dreaming is experienced. It is very difficult to rouse someone from these stages. There is no eye movement or muscle activity.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage: This stage occurs approximately 90 minutes after a person goes to sleep. As the name suggests, the sleeper can be observed making rapid eye movements, which is indicative of dreaming. A person awakes after the REM stage.
What does all this have to do with your understanding of power naps and their benefits? A lot!
What are Power Naps?
A power nap is a short sleep session, typically occurring during the day, which lasts for a period of approximately 10 – 30 minutes. Based on the information above, taking a power nap means waking up before you enter the deep sleep stages. One can take longer naps that last more than 30 minutes, but it is inadvisable, as sleep inertia (drowsiness/ grogginess that one experiences after waking up) sets in.
Sleep inertia arises because the longer you sleep, the further along the stages of the sleep cycle you are in, making it more difficult to rouse you from sleep. Also, in the later stages of your sleep, particularly the REM stage, the body is paralyzed to prevent you from thrashing about while acting out your dreams. These effects take time to wear off and restore your optimal functioning.
Can Power Naps Make You Smarter?
In a way… yes! Studies have found that power napping when one feels drowsy increases alertness and refreshes you, unlike having coffee or forcibly keeping yourself awake. A 20-minute nap boosts learning, and specifically motor learning, i.e., the kind of learning required to perform a skill, such as playing a piano or riding a bicycle. On the other hand, benefits for improving long-term memory of learned material are thought to result from longer naps that include the deep sleep stages.
Numerous studies on sleep and memory consolidation (firming the place of memories over the long-term) have found that participants who learned a list of words and then slept for either a short or long duration could recall the list as though they hadn’t just taken a nap, and in fact, they performed better than people who did not sleep after learning the list. These benefits to the memory occur because memories are consolidated during the deep sleep stages, and perhaps motor memory undergoes the same process during early stages of sleep.
For students, napping at the study table after a long session doesn’t seem like a bad idea, since it does promote learning! Everyone knows the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel while driving, and a drowsy driver is definitely an inattentive driver. When you are well rested, it enhances attention and concentration.
Sleep of any kind is analogous to a “rest period” for an overheated system. The resting period is required so that the system does not crash. During sleep and naps, our body conducts many of the functions that repair the damage caused by wear and tear on the body. This is more of a physical benefit of sleep rather than cognitive.
Some organizations have also accepted the importance of napping for improving productivity and include workspaces where employees can rest or undo the effects of erratic schedules.
With all of this in mind, go ahead and nap at your workplace! If anyone objects, tell them that you’re being more productive than the employees forcing themselves to stay awake…Science has your back!
- Sleep – Wikipedia
- Sleep Helps Learning, Memory – Harvard Health (Harvard Medical School)
- Napping – National Sleep Foundation