The Science of Napping

As you read this, you may be thinking to yourself, “I’m an expert napper, I’ve been napping for years now, I wrote a book about napping one time, etc.”

Well, awesome, read no further. For those people who don’t yet nap like it’s their job, read on.

 “What does a nap look like? How much should I be sleeping?”

I’m glad you asked! The best types of naps are those that include rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is the deeper sleep that your brain takes a while to cycle into. Basically, most people can get there in 60 minutes, and almost everyone gets there in 90 minutes. Since most of the benefits of napping are linked to REM sleep, a 60-90 minute nap would do you (and most other people) right. Napping longer? No problem! Napping shorter? Depends on your REM cycle and how quickly you get into REM sleep. Unless you’ve had your brain monitored in your sleep recently (who hasn’t these days!), you probably won’t know how long REM takes you on average, so the 60-90 minute guideline is a good one to keep in mind!

“I already know all this, but I’m a busy student, I don’t have time to nap!”

The psychology department at Harvard made a fascinating discovery about the effect that naps have on learning (That’s right, student! Learning!). Researchers have known for a while now that during a full night’s sleep, the things you’ve learned throughout the day are consolidated –  a necessary part of getting your brain to learn and respond to stimuli. This new research tells us that a nap does you just as much good in a visual discrimination task (i.e., how well you scan your environment, tell one thing from another) as an 8-hour nocturnal sleep.  You heard it here first. Unless you’re majoring in psych.

So, as the school year kicks off, and you find yourself getting drowsy and unfocused, remember: nap early*, nap often!

*i.e., don’t wait until you’re absolutely exhausted, not a reference to time of day! Probably before 3pm is best though!

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