America, It's Time for Your Nap
A workday snooze can relieve sleep deprivation and boost your productivity.
Fighting Sleep: Losing Battle
Only recently have scientists come to understand this
phenomenon called "mental fatigue," Robert Stickgold, PhD, a cognitive
neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, tells WebMD.
With Harvard students as his test subjects, Stickgold has
teased out some interesting conclusions.
Students volunteered to perform an hourlong, repetitive task
that even Stickgold admits was "sort of tiring." They did it four times
a day: at 9 a.m., noon, 4 p.m., and 7 p.m. "Lo and behold, they got worse
and worse and worse" as the day wore on, he says.
He then tried a few things to ferret out just what
"cured" mental fatigue.
- He changed the task a bit, and that helped. The students' "work"
improved vastly -- performance went right back up to morning levels.
- A half-hour afternoon nap also helped. Their performance didn't get better,
but it didn't get any worse.
- Even better: After an hour-long afternoon nap, students "bopped back to
where they were in the morning" -- but only those who got rapid eye
movement (REM) sleep, which helps with memory, learning, thinking.
- What worked best: A 90-minute nap created a "whopping improvement."
Those students performed as well as "fresh" students with a full
night's sleep, because they all got REM sleep.
The need for sleep -- as with all other biological drives --
involves a disconnect between what the body really needs and what it
feels like it needs, Stickgold explains.
"In a funny way, it's as if only a small part of your brain
needs sleep," Stickgold tells WebMD. "When this small part becomes
saturated -- your inbox is full -- it will signal you."
Say you've been studying all night, and think you're burned
out. Then someone shows up with tickets to the midnight show, and you bounce
right up and go. You won't actually feel exhausted until 1:30 a.m. when you get
When we fight mental fatigue, that's the disconnect we're
dealing with, he explains. "There are two ways to deal with burnout --
switch to a different task, or get some sleep," says Stickgold.
Why Not Nap?
If you're plugging away at a deadline, sleep may indeed be your
only option. As your eyelids grow heavy, it's too late to fight it. Caffeine
can help mask it, but only temporarily.
"When you're sleep deprived, you do get sleepy,"
says Rosekind. "That signal is so powerful that, if you ignore it, your
body will shut down and you will sleep anyway."
Anthony has spoken with employers: "You let people have
bathroom breaks, smoking breaks, walk breaks. Why
can't they nap on their break instead of lunch or shop? What we're pushing is a
simple policy, really: You can do anything on break as long as it isn't immoral
or illegal, and that includes napping."