Can Naps Actually Make Me Smarter?
Probably. You’ll certainly be able to learn better.
Matthew Walker is an Englishman who teaches and researches at UC Berkeley. Along with others like Robert Stickgold and Sara Mednick he’s shown that learning consolidates with naps.
Now his recent work make it look like naps don’t just consolidate learning – they prepare you to learn. And stage 2 sleep, the “light sleep” that makes up the majority of your sleep time, is necessary for learning optimization.
44 young people, both sexes
All are asked at noon to memorize a set of 100 words and faces – a difficult, onerous task unless you’re Joshua Foer or have specifically trained to remember large amounts of useless, unrelated material.
Half nap for 90 minutes, half don’t.
Next, everybody is asked to remember another set of words and faces thatevening.
The group that doesn’t nap predictably does worse – it’s really hard remembering words that don’t relate in any clear way with faces. It’s even harder to repeat the exercise with a bunch of new words and faces after learning a different bunch at noon. Predictably, the brain gets confused.
The non-nappers do 12% worse.
The nappers do 10% better.
The interesting part – the stage 2 sleep of the nappers looks like the stage of sleep which aids future learning. Stage 2 sleep is the majority of sleep for people, about 55-60% of sleep in adults. It’s one part of sleep that really gets short shrift when people sleep less than they should – which includes the majority of Americans. It’s a huge problem problem in adolescents, who consistently sleep about 2 hours less than the 9 + hours of sleep they need to fully learn.
Does This Mean Naps Will Make Me Smarter?
Depends on what you mean by smarter. Certainly these long nap studies, with young people getting in naps of 90 minutes or even more, show that people learn better with naps. With long naps old material is consolidated and people learn better in the future.
Do people become more creative after these naps? Professor Sarah Mednick of UCSD thinks so. She showed that nappers who got into REM sleep appeared to have more interesting results, producing different kinds of ideas. But will this work for you?
Most adults will not get a chance to nap on the job. About half of Fortune 500 employers will fire or reprimand you for sleeping at work. True, it’s a different story in Silicon Valley, where napping is encouraged, but many tech companies often have employees working around the clock.
For those who do nap, efficient naps in terms of alertness and work productivity generally take much shorter times than those researched in many academic studies. The famous NASA study of the 1980s had cockpit pilots take naps averaging 26 minutes. Their “productivity” on mental tests increased by about a third.
Short naps also seem to really aid people who did not get enough sleep on previous nights to improve alertness and mood.
Naps can help you consolidate learning.
Naps can help you learn better.
Naps can make you more productive.
Stage 2 sleep seems to bring on lots of communication between the cortex and the hippocampus, a conversation necessary for memory consolidation.
For real creativity you probably need all the different phases of sleep. Though research on learning has concentrated on REM sleep and deep sleep, researchers have known for decades that depriving people of stage 2 sleep alone makes really tired, distressed, and slow.
This all argues that attempts at polyphasic sleep – where people sleep in 20 or 30 minute intervals for a total of 2-3 hours per 24 – will probably fail for most of the population.
Rest is regeneration. Different types of rest give you different results – but you need all of them to function optimally.
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