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A Nap Helps You Connect the Dots—and More

I’ve written before that I regularly nap after lunch and after workouts; my best naps come after I workout and eat. (Frank Zane is also a committed napper.) Like interval training, naps help me get more out of my day and my workouts. I believe in working and training hard, and then resting. Stress—without rest—doesn’t get us very far in training or in life. "The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal," Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz wrote in The Power of Full Engagement (Free Press, 2003). "Instead many of us live our lives as if we are running in an endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion." http://www.cbass.com/Intervalsforlife.htm

Perhaps the most famous nap-taker was Winston Churchill. Naps helped him cope with his awesome responsibilities during World War II. There was nothing half-hearted about Churchill’s naps. He closed the shades, took his clothes off, put on his pajamas, got into bed, and pulled up the covers.

Churchill was outspoken on the value of naps"Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination. You will accomplish more. You get two days in one – well, at least one and a half, I’m sure." (Napoleon, Thomas Edison, and President Kennedy were also nappers.)  

Winston Churchill was well ahead of the science of the time, perhaps wiser than he knew.

A long-term study of 23,681 Greek men and women published in the February 12, 2007, Archives of Internal Medicine showed that 30-minute, mid-day naps can reduce heart disease deaths by up to 37%. Other studies show that a nap during the day improves memory and clears the clutter in the brain, like rebooting your computer. A nap helps you think straight and perform better.

A recent study presented by neuroscientist William Fishbein, PhD, at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, fills in more of the details. (Dr. Fishbein’s presentation was reported by AP health and medical writer Lauran Neergaard in a story dated November 22, 2008.)

Relational Memory

One of the things I do best is connect the dots between related ideas. Dr. Fishbein would probably say that napping helps me see the big picture.

Fishbein theorized that “slow-wave sleep,” a form of very deep sleep that comes before REM sleep (dream stage), is an active and vital feature of napping. That’s important because slow-wave sleep appears to help the brain organize thoughts and memories.

The idea is that our brain keeps working on problems while we nap. To test this hypothesis, Fishbein and graduate student Hiuyan Lau devised a simple study of “relational memory,” where the brain puts together “separately learned facts in new ways.”

They taught college students Chinese words with two-characters, such as sister, mother, and maid. Half the students took a 90-minute nap, while being carefully monitored to make sure they didn’t move from slow-wave sleep into REM sleep.

The students (nap and no-nap) were then given a multiple-choice test of Chinese words they hadn’t seen before. Sure enough, the nappers were much faster to catch on that the new words included the same first characters as the earlier words—which always meant the same thing, female, for example. So they were more likely than the non-nappers to choose that a new word containing that character meant princess and not ape.

“The nap group has essentially teased out what’s going on,” Fishbein concluded.   

The Last Word

Antonia Will, PhD, whose study “Sleep cycle distortion through industrial work hours and its effect on productivity and just general crabbiness” has been hailed as a landmark, summed up the value of naps in a presentation to scientists and reporters: “Sometimes you can sit at your desk and your mind is like Jell-O. It just sits there. Time is passing, and you’re unable to think. You’re awake, but non-productive. But after a good nap, you’re alert again. Your mind snaps into action and you can get more done in less time. So the time you spend napping is less than the time you would have wasted being awake, and you’ve been productive, it’s a double-bonus.” (http://www.efuse.com/nap/ )

Hats off to Winston Churchill! He was spot on.

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