Published November 12, 2012
We’ve all felt that urge to rest our eyes—just for a minute!—at, oh, 3:30 p.m. on a workday.
And now new research shows that you absolutely should indulge that urge, in the name of productivity, no less.
While you’re snoozing, there’s a lot going on cranially, says study author Andrei Medvedev, an assistant professor in the Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging at Georgetown University. He outfitted 15 participants with caps full of optical fibers (sort of like wearing a high-tech shower cap) and told them to relax and clear their minds for up to eight minutes.
Medvedev noticed something strange happening: The right brain exhibited much higher levels of activity. Why is that weird? Most of us are right-handed, a trait that science has shown corresponds with left-brain dominance. (In cranial chemistry, at least, opposites attract.) But during rest, regardless of hand dominance, right brains were by far the most active.
That’s pretty much a complete reversal from how most brains behave during waking life.
“There is an emerging understanding that during nap (and other resting states such as wake relaxation, as well as all stages of sleep) our brains are active but in a different and special way,” says Medvedev. So what are our busy brains doing during sleep? Medvedev suspects they’re doing some mental housekeeping, organizing, and processing of information. In other words, consider that your cue to lobby HR for mandatory naptime.
We already know that rest improves memory, but does this now mean a nap could be the key to creativity, too?
“Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that some brilliant ideas came to some great scientists at sleep,” Medvedev says. The creator of the Periodic Table of Elements, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev, claimed he figured out how to arrange it in his sleep.
Here’s more fuel to add to your pro-napping fire:
Naps increase productivity. It’s true—naps may protect brain circuits from overuse and help you consolidate newly learned information, according to Robert Stickgold, PhD and director of Harvard’s Center for Sleep and Cognition. But you have to do it right. Check out How To Nap At Work for tips on optimizing your workplace Zzzs.
They make up for insomnia. Research has found that people who nap for 15 minutes feel more alert and less sleepy, even if they didn’t catch much sleep the previous night. (Not the best sleeper? Here's how to get a great night's sleep every night.)
They chill you out. Want to cut your cortisol in half? Research shows that the stress hormone dramatically drops after naptime, especially if you tossed and turned the night before. (Find more ways to beat your stress hormone fast here.)