3.25.2008

Feel Tired at 3pm? Take a Nap

It must have taken some getting used to, if you were a staffer in the socially conservative early 1960s. Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States and leader of the free world, routinely closed the door to his office in the midafternoon and put on his pajamas. He then proceeded to take a 30-minute nap. Rising refreshed, he would tell aides that such a nap gave him the stamina to work the long hours required of the U.S. commander-in-chief during the Cold War. Such presidential behavior might seem downright weird. But if you ask sleep researchers like William Dement, his response might surprise you: It was LBJ who was acting normally; the rest of us, who refuse to bring our pajamas to work, are the abnormal ones. And Dement has a fair amount of data to back him up.

Above: watch the Symphony of Yawns video clip from the Brain Rules DVD.

LBJ was responding to something experienced by nearly everyone on the planet. It goes by many names-the midday yawn, the post-lunch dip, the afternoon "sleepies." We'll call it the nap zone, a period of time in the midafternoon when we experience transient sleepiness. It can be nearly impossible to get anything done during this time, and if you attempt to push through, which is what most of us do, you can spend much of your afternoon fighting a gnawing tiredness. It's a fight because the brain really wants to take a nap and doesn't care what its owner is doing. The concept of "siesta," institutionalized in many other cultures, may have come as an explicit reaction to the nap zone.

At first, scientists didn't believe the nap zone existed except as an artifact of sleep deprivation. That has changed. We now know that some people feel it more intensely than others. We know it is not related to a big lunch (although a big lunch, especially one loaded with carbs, can greatly increase its intensity). It appears, rather, to be a part of our evolutionary history. Some scientists think that a long sleep at night and a short nap during the midday represent human sleep behavior at its most natural.

When you chart the process S curve and process C curve, you can see that they flat-line in the same place-in the afternoon. Remember that these curves are plotting the progress of a war between two opposed groups of cells and biochemicals. The battle clearly has reached a climactic stalemate. An equal tension now exists between the two drives, which extracts a great deal of energy to maintain. Some researchers, though not all, think this equanimity in tension drives the nap zone. Regardless, the nap zone matters, because our brains don't work as well during it. If you are a public speaker, you already know it is darn near fatal to give a talk in the midafternoon. The nap zone also is literally fatal: More traffic accidents occur during it than at any other time of the day.

On the flip side, one NASA study showed that a 26-minute nap improved a pilot's performance by more than 34 percent. Another study showed that a 45-minute nap produced a similar boost in cognitive performance, lasting more than six hours. Still other researchers demonstrated that a 30-minute nap taken prior to staying up all night can prevent a significant loss of performance during that night.
If that's what a nap can do, imagine the benefits of a full night's sleep.

Listen to this post from the "Brain Rules" Audio Book.

3 comments:

Florian said...

Are there any findings what effect 30 minutes of meditation in the nap zone might have on the brain?
Could it also be beneficial or even be a substitute for a nap?

Phil said...

Sir Winston Churchill was a dedicated nap taker - it was what got him through the stresses of World War II.

Phil said...

A Proper Churchill Nap

“You must sleep some time between lunch and dinner, and no half-way measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. 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 be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one-well, at least one and a half, I’m sure. When the war started, I had to sleep during the day because that was the only way I could cope with my responsibilities.”

from http://a.wholelottanothing.org/2007/02/14/1946-action-this-day-the-churchill-centre/

– Winston Churchill