Remember the last time you had trouble sleeping at night? It’s a cruel sort of torture, having to endure every single second of sleeplessness while the hours seem to whisk on by unnoticed. But that doesn’t even compare to the struggles of the following day.
Sleep is a huge part of our well-being and ignoring this fact comes at a huge price. Need another reason to not pull an all-nighter for your next midterm? In one study, students who failed to sleep at all suffered a considerable 40 percent drop in their ability to cram new facts.
Sleeping presents a puzzling conundrum with our present culture. We all take part in this rat-race in which if you’re not getting ahead, you’re falling behind. And in a “wired-or-tired nation” obsessed with maximizing productivity, getting appropriate sleep takes a pretty bad rep.
To me, sleep has always presented itself as a kind of necessary evil. Any more sleep than needed and you’re treading ice on the worst kind of sin: Laziness. Nothing could paint a more perfect picture of wasting time in this day and age than napping, but as it turns out, the science surrounding sleep suggests otherwise.
The truth of the matter is that we may actually be biologically disposed to have a biphasic sleep cycle. Studies have proposed that we may be meant to sleep for 5 to 7 hours at night, then, depending on how many hours we logged, a 15 to 90-minute midday nap.
Of all the innumerable benefits that sleep has on our well-being, one of the most pronounced is its involvement in cognitive function. And nothing can have quite the effect of refreshing our working memory like sleep.
Sleep is what allows us to make sense of information and consolidate it into our long-term memory; it clears our mind’s slate in order to attack problems afresh. I’m sure you’re aware of how difficult it is to solve a task at hand when there is a lot on your mind.
Sleep studies have resulted in neurological scans and cognitive assessments that show those who adopted a biphasic sleep cycle performed at a higher level than those who committed to monophasic sleep.
One study conducted at UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory confirmed that subjects who took a 90-minute nap performed significantly better than their no-nap counterparts in learning fact-based information.
“It’s as though the e-mail inbox in your hippocampus is full, and, until you sleep and clear out all those fact e-mails, you’re not going to receive any more mail,” Dr. Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory said in the study’s press release.
The benefits aren’t limited to just fact-recall either. Another study reported that a 60-to 90-minute nap during the day resulted in improved consolidation of motor skill training. Subjects improved their speed in learning tasks by up to 15 percent without suffering any loss of accuracy.
Some of the most famous faces we would never think to have napped actually adopted this biphasic sleep system. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Napoleon: these are, in fact, a few of the famous faces that utilized such a sleep schedule.
We would do well to listen to the wise words of Churchill, a fierce advocate of the powers of napping.
“You should sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway 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,” Churchill said.
Just make certain your sleep is productive. Figure out how long you’re going to sleep for, and make sure you eliminate any distractions such as your laptop or phone. It’s so easy, you could do it with your eyes closed!
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of March 5th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.
Art by Mingchen Shen of the Daily Nexus.