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Take that Nap! It May Boost Your Learning Capacity Among Other Good Things.

Any­one who knows me knows that my favorite pas­time is nap­ping. In Col­lege, I would come back to my dorm room, and like clock­work, would take a nap. My best friend in Eng­land, who got quite a kick out of my pas­sion for nap­ping, once tried to per­suade me to drink a cup of tea after lunch instead of tak­ing my cus­tom­ary nap. I real­ly tried, but I soon gave in to my nap crav­ings. Some­times I feel like I real­ly need to re-charge my brain bat­ter­ies.

Well, now sci­ence is on my side. I just love this new study, which was pre­sent­ed by Matthew Walk­er, assis­tant pro­fes­sor at UC Berke­ley, at the annu­al meet­ing of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of the Advance­ment of Sci­ence (AAAS) con­fer­ence in San Diego this past Sun­day (Feb. 2010).

Walk­er and his col­leagues Bryce A. Man­der and Sangeetha San­thanam split up a batch of 39 healthy young adults into two groups. One group napped, the oth­er did not.

At noon, both groups took a learn­ing task thought to recruit the hip­pocam­pus. The hip­pocam­pus is a region of the brain known to play an impor­tant role in the for­ma­tion of new mem­o­ries. Over the past few years, var­i­ous researchers have found that fact-based mem­o­ries are tem­porar­i­ly stored in the hip­pocam­pus before oth­er regions of the brain can oper­ate on the con­tent, espe­cial­ly the regions of the brain respon­si­ble for high­er-order rea­son­ing and think­ing.  At this point in the exper­i­ment, both groups showed sim­i­lar lev­els of per­for­mance.

Then, at 2pm, the nap group took a 90-minute nap while the no-nap group stayed awake, pre­sum­ably watch­ing the nap group enjoy­ing their nap. After nap-time both groups then took more learn­ing tests. The nap­pers did bet­ter on the tasks than those who stayed awake, demon­strat­ing their high­er capac­i­ty to learn.

The researchers inter­pret these find­ings as sup­port­ing their hypoth­e­sis that a major func­tion of sleep is to clear away all the clut­ter stored in the hip­pocam­pus to make room for new infor­ma­tion. In the words of Walk­er:

It’s as though the e-mail inbox in your hip­pocam­pus is full and, until you sleep and clear out those fact e-mails, you’re not going to receive any more mail. It’s just going to bounce until you sleep and move it into anoth­er fold­er.”

Walk­er also likens the brain to a sponge:

Sleep is crit­i­cal for learn­ing. It’s like the brain is a sponge. Sleep wrings cer­tain key regions out so you’re able to soak up new infor­ma­tion the next day.”

Short mid-day naps may be good because they get you into a par­tic­u­lar­ly ben­e­fi­cial part of the sleep cycle. EEG stud­ies (that mea­sure the elec­tri­cal activ­i­ty of the brain) have shown that this mem­o­ry-refresh­ing process occurs dur­ing Stage 2 non-REM sleep. We actu­al­ly spend at least 50% of our sleep­ing time in this stage, sug­gest­ing an adap­tive pur­pose for this stage of sleep:

I can’t imag­ine Moth­er Nature would have us spend 50 per­cent of the night going from one sleep stage to anoth­er for no rea­son. Sleep is sophis­ti­cat­ed. It acts local­ly to give us what we need,” says Walk­er.

man drinking coffeeNow, what about that cup of tea? Was my friend in Eng­land right? His advice is usu­al­ly spot-on, but this time he may have been mis­guid­ed.  Sara Med­nick at the UC San Diego (and author of the book: Take a Nap! Change Your Life) divid­ed her sub­jects into two groups: one group received 200 mg of caf­feine and did not nap and the oth­er group just took a nap. Then both groups under­went a bat­tery of tasks, includ­ing mea­sures of typ­ing, and mea­sures of mem­o­ry recall, tap­ping into visu­al, ver­bal, and motor mem­o­ry. She found that the day nap­pers did bet­ter on all the tasks than those who popped the caf­feiene pill. “Of course, that’s bad news for Star­bucks,” says Med­nick. Med­nick also notes: “Which would you rather be: wired or smart?”

Med­nick points out that the time dur­ing the day a per­son should nap varies depend­ing on the person’s age. She says that since teenagers and young adults have a slight­ly shift­ed sleep cycle, going to bed late and wak­ing up ear­ly, their ide­al nap­ping win­dow is in the after­noon, around 4p.m. The ide­al nap­ping win­dow for adults, in con­trast, is between 1 to 3 p.m., since adults usu­al­ly sleep between 11 p.m. and mid­night and wake up between 6.am. and 8 am.

Walk­er and his col­leagues are also inter­est­ed in the link between age and the func­tion of sleep. They are now inves­ti­gat­ing whether the reduc­tion of sleep as we age is asso­ci­at­ed with the well-repli­cat­ed decrease in our abil­i­ty to learn as we age. As not­ed in the offi­cial UC Berke­ley Uni­ver­si­ty press release, this is fas­ci­nat­ing research and could great­ly improve our under­stand­ing of neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive con­di­tions such as Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

Sleep­ing is Good for You

The Walk­er and col­leagues study is one among a num­ber that show that sleep, more gen­er­al­ly, can be very ben­e­fi­cial for a wide range of pos­i­tive out­comes. At UC Berke­ley, both Walker’s research group and Alli­son Harvey’s group at the Sleep and Psy­cho­log­i­cal Dis­or­der Lab­o­ra­to­ry have found that get­ting a good amount of sleep at night is tied to a bet­ter immune sys­tem, meta­bol­ic con­trol, mem­o­ry, learn­ing, and emo­tion­al func­tion­ing. Most of us are famil­iar with the often cit­ed find­ing that pulling an all-nighter the night before an exam can decrease the abil­i­ty to remem­ber the infor­ma­tion by rough­ly 40 per­cent, but it’s real­ly cool to see all these oth­er ben­e­fits of sleep.

women learning pianoI can relate. Some­times when I am learn­ing a new tune on my piano, I get frus­trat­ed in the moment when I think I am no longer mak­ing progress. Some­times when I try to tack­le the song the next day after a good night’s sleep, I real­ize I have learnt the whole thing the night before! In fact, research does show that peo­ple have 20 to 30 per­cent bet­ter recall of what they learned dur­ing a piano les­son if they are test­ed after a full eight hours of sleep than if they are test­ed right after the piano les­son.

There are also ben­e­fits of sleep for cre­ativ­i­ty. Mul­ti­ple threads of research sup­port this notion, and the link between sleep­ing and cre­ativ­i­ty has been not­ed by promi­nent researchers such as Jerome Singer as well as Walk­er:

This starts to sound a lot like the basis for human cre­ativ­i­ty. The fus­ing of things that don’t seem to have any con­nec­tion. That’s what sleep, par­tic­u­lar­ly dream­ing does. Like good cook­ing, when it comes to mem­o­ry, it’s not enough to chop up the ingre­di­ents and put them togeth­er. The brain needs time to let things mar­i­nate.”

Sleep­ing may even have impor­tant affects on depres­sion. Some researchers now believe that chron­ic sleep depri­va­tion may lead to depres­sion, rather than depres­sion caus­ing one to sleep less (which was what researchers used to think was the causal link).  In one study, which I believe is still ongo­ing, Harvey’s research group along with the Kaier Per­ma­nente Cen­ter for Health Research in Ore­gon recruit­ed 60 mid­dle and high school stu­dents to inves­ti­gate whether more sleep can low­er the risk fac­tor for depres­sion. In their study, the teens will report on their sleep habits for 12-weeks, under­go­ing 12 one-hour, once-a-week ses­sions of cog­ni­tive behav­ior ther­a­py that will focus on sleep and mood pat­terns.

It’s clear then that sleep is adap­tive for many pos­i­tive out­comes.

We are get­ting close to under­stand­ing some of the func­tions of sleep, yet soci­ety still treats sleep like a lux­u­ry. We say, ‘When I have two weeks’ vaca­tion I’m going to allow myself to sleep eight hours.’ But we would nev­er say that about water or food. If there’s some­thing that gets short­changed, it’s always sleep,” notes Walk­er.

In fact, it turns out that peo­ple who take reg­u­lar naps and get a good night’s sleep may have the abil­i­ty to learn twice as much as those who just get a good night’s rest. This is all impor­tant research, espe­cial­ly in light of the fact that about 40% of Amer­i­cans get less than 7 hours of shut-eye a night (teenagers are advised to sleep about 9 hours a night) and two-thirds of women report hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ty falling asleep more than three nights a week. As Med­nick notes: “We are a sleep-deprived nation.” Med­nick and oth­er offi­cials at UC San Diego even orga­nized a “nap-in” last year dur­ing Inter­na­tion­al Nap­ping Day (don’t you wish every day was Inter­na­tion­al Nap­ping Day?).

So, to all the nap­ping haters out there, check out the research. But real­ly, doesn’t this research all real­ly just con­firm what moth­ers have been telling us all along? Walk­er thinks so: “My research is not rev­o­lu­tion­ary, because your moth­er knew it all along.

—-  Scott Bar­ry Kauf­man, Ph.D. is a cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist and writer based in New York City. His lat­est Sharp­Brains arti­cles are:

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4 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Even dur­ing the height of the Sec­ond World War Win­ston Churchill would nap. As I recall, sev­er­al pres­i­dents were also known to nap, includ­ing Lin­coln and FDR. Per­son­al­ly, I like the idea but just do not think my employ­er would under­stand.

    Inter­est­ing arti­cle.

  2. dr. dement would be proud...almost says:

    william c. dement is a pio­neer of sleep research, and also quite a char­ac­ter who encour­ages sleep­ing dur­ing lec­tures in his stan­ford course, “sleep and dreams”. he’d be hap­py that you’re spread­ing knowl­edge about the ben­e­fits of sleep, and would wish me to remind you that DROWSINESS IS RED ALERT — a pop­u­lar phrase of his mean­ing that a dri­ver should pull over at the first sign of drowsi­ness.

    i can’t speak for dr. dement, but i’m dis­ap­point­ed by the qual­i­ty of the arti­cle.

    this is an arti­cle for a “brain fit­ness” site, so don’t you think you could have found some smart per­son to do a lit­tle edit­ing? how can a ph.d still con­fuse ‘affect’ with ‘effect’? a study which *you believe* is still ongo­ing? at “kaier per­ma­nente”? take a nap, bud­dy. here’s hop­ing the next one’s bet­ter!

  3. previous comment says:

    quote:
    this is an arti­cle for a “brain fit­ness” site, so don’t you think you could have found some smart per­son to do a lit­tle edit­ing? how can a ph.d still con­fuse ‘affect’ with ‘effect’? a study which *you believe* is still ongo­ing? at “kaier per­ma­nente”? take a nap, bud­dy. here’s hop­ing the next one’s bet­ter!

    you are wrong, because if he sub­sti­tut­ed the word affect with the word effect, then the cause would be from sleep depri­va­tion. Author clear­ly stat­ed may manip­u­late, the cause of depres­sion is many. So using affect is right, because it may help rem­e­dy the state of mood.

    very well writ­ten arti­cle, do con­tin­ue author, since this day and time, we need more insight to gain more insight.

    best regards

  4. Lenny says:

    I now have an excuse for my boss when he catch­es my nap­ping on the job.

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