Can a Midday Nap Make You Smarter?

Study Shows Adults Who Nap Learn Better, Perform Better

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 22, 2010 -- Devote your lunch hour to a restful nap, and you may perform and learn better in the afternoon, a new study suggests.

Nappers performed better than non-nappers on a test, says study researcher Matthew Walker, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley. He presented his findings this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego.

''The brain's ability to learn information is not stable across the day," Walker tells WebMD. The area of the brain that stores memories may get ''clogged up'' as the day goes on, akin to a full email in-box on your computer, he says.

Napping at midday, when the brain's ability to learn may have deteriorated, may clear the brain's memory storage area and make room for new information, Walker says.

Nap or No Nap: The Study

Walker and his colleagues gave 39 healthy young adults, average age 21, a difficult learning task intended to tax the brain's hippocampus, a region that helps store memories based on fact. The test -- learning 100 face-name pairs and then matching them up -- was given at noon.

Then, at 2 p.m., the nap group was given the chance for a 90-minute siesta; the no-nap group was asked to stay awake.

At 6 p.m., Walker gave them the test again. "People in the group which didn't nap had a slight reduction of about 10% in their learning capacity during the day,'' Walker tells WebMD, ''whereas the people who had a nap in between the first time they tried to learn relative to the second time they tried to learn actually improved their ability to learn by 10%."

The total time the participants slept during the 90-minute window didn't matter much in their later performance, Walker found. But the greater the amount of stage 2 non-REM sleep, a lighter form of non-dreaming sleep, the better their performance, he found.

Naps and Learning: Implications

The study results suggest that sleep before learning may be important, too, just as experts have known that sleep after learning is crucial to solidify information learned, Walker says.