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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

[Wherein our hero, sleepy from all his blogging, decides to take a nap. But is a siesta such a good idea?]

Here in Australia it's just getting into Summer. And the trick with 'getting into summer' is enduring the brief but painful transition from cool to hot. It usually only last a few weeks, but it's a few weeks characterised by sleeplessness, crankiness and trying to get used to not having a doonah anymore...

And the beauty of being a Uni student (even one who tries to work hard) is that I can afford to nap. Simply put, naps are awesome. Just from a indulgent perspective - if you haven't had a siesta is a few years, have one today, it will rock.

But lets start at the beginning of the day. Your alarm screams at you and you get that sickly feeling in your gut that comes just from associating waking with an alarm (does anyone else get that?). Is it better to hit the snooze, to plan on a siesta, or better to plan on our chemical friend - caffiene. First, a few definition - a snooze was defined as 'an extended sleep' <90 mins (where the mean was 74 minutes), a Nap was standardized at 20 mins, and coffee was standardized at 150 mg.

Horne, Anderson & Platten (2008) assigned conditions and measured participants on sleep latency and psychomotor vigilence. All treatments significantly reduced the afternoon 'dip' and delayed the onset of late evening sleepiness, with a nap working most effectively, followed by caffiene, and - although a sleep-in had a significant effect - it was only a modest improvement on controls. All subjects were normal 7 - 8 hour sleepers.

Then I found Milner & Cote (2009) and their excellent meta-analysis. They state that naps are better than coffee in terms of restorative ability and length of benefit, but that a nap+coffee was better still. Yet if we're going to play the chemical game - when a nap was induced by a non-benzodiazepine hypnotic drug subjects reported greater degree of decreased sleepiness and improved wakefulness. And when a nap was combined with Modafinal subjects demonstrated improved reaction time and ehanced learning.

Ok, since not may of us have access to perscription only anti-narcolopetic drugs I'm going to post a really nice table from Milner & Cote just outlining the more normal benefits of napping:


Milne & Cote (2009) also suggest that the optimum length of a nap is probably 10 minutes. When naps last longer people tend to have to spend a longer period of time recovering from 'sleep inertia'. And when comparing the benefits of a 10 minute nap vs. 1-hour nap (and some middling intervals) after 3 hours - there was no difference. The 10-minute nap is king.

It is important to note, however, that not all naps are created equal, nor are all napper created equal. It has been suggested that experienced nappers glean more benefit than inexperience nappers (probably due to their faster rate of sleep onset), and that the manner in which you nap is important. Zhao and colleagues (2010) experimentally found that napping lying down is superior to napping in a seated position. I think this might be important because I can imagine a number of people thinking 'I'll just close my eyes here in my seat' thinking that it is a good way of getting a nap when lying down could be socially inappropriate. This data suggests that if you're going to nap, you ought to do it properly. Seated napping will make you feel better, but won't result in physiological benefits, whereas lying down will - particularly for experienced nappers.

Unfortunately no-where really discusses the best method for developing napping prowess. So I'm going to propose the following, and here I speak only from experience - The biggest problem in napping is sleep onset, sometimes if I can't drop off in less than about 6 or 7 minutes I just get up and walk away, because it's just not going to work (I think I can currently drop off in about 3 mins). The best way to overcome that (in my mind) is to begin napping for decent intervals (say >40 mins) and whittle that time down as you get better at dropping off. Additionally, I never rest so deeply that I would call it sleep - it is more like a prolonged pre-sleep stage; you know that trippy realm with all the voices and images that are lucid but completely incoherent? In my experience that's all you get, but it seems to be enough (no data on this at the moment). 

Finally, I find a nap is excellent for insight. The number of problems that called for creativity that I have solved by going to bed is numerous. You have to do all the hard grunt work first; you have to really understand the problem - but then you should have a tea, relax a while and think about something else - then have a nap.

So it appears (based on the research) that if you're not a napper, you ought to be. If you're not a good napper, you should get better at it. 10 minutes isn't long - you could sneak that in on your lunch-break - but it will set you up nicely for the rest of the afternoon (and evening).

I'd be interested to find out if there's any non-nappers out there who change their behaviour (at least once) to play with these ideas. Let me know.

Happy napping!


HORNE, J., ANDERSON, C., & PLATTEN, C. (2008). Sleep extension versus nap or coffee, within the context of ‘sleep debt’ Journal of Sleep Research, 17 (4), 432-436 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00680.x Milner CE, & Cote KA (2009). Benefits of napping in healthy adults: impact of nap length, time of day, age, and experience with napping. Journal of sleep research, 18 (2), 272-81 PMID: 19645971 Zhao D, Zhang Q, Fu M, Tang Y, & Zhao Y (2010). Effects of physical positions on sleep architectures and post-nap functions among habitual nappers. Biological psychology, 83 (3), 207-13 PMID: 20064578

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UC Davis
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All this talk of napping is making me very, very sleepy!  There was a piece on the news here the other night about some companies that are implementing a nap room in the office where workers are encouraged to go and take a brief nap, apparently they have found that increases productivity (no specific data sadly, just observations!), especially in that post-lunch afternoon funk.  They are trying to break the stigma associated with napping at work and make it a respectable thing to do.  Of course, the Spaniards have been one step ahead of us on this one for a long time with their afternoon siestas!  Definitely something I could get on board with.  The postdoc union here on the UC campus is having a banner year at improving conditions for postdocs, perhaps I should suggest they fight for our napping rights next?!

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Yeah, after doing that reading I'm surprised more progressive companies aren't instituting a 30-minute nap period. It seems that the benefits, while intangible, would be highly beneficial.

Jason Goldman
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Ummm.... what is a "doonah"?

Jason Goldman
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Heh, answered my own question:

In Australia a duvet or down quilt is often called a "Doona" (

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Love to nap! And I'm very good at it. I went through a sleep study where I had to nap every 2 hours and see if I dreamt. My average time for falling asleep was 1.5 minutes - and that was after 8 full hours of sleep the next before.

Kelly Oakes
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I wish I could nap... I'm so bad at falling asleep though, takes me between 30-60 mins at night, let alone when napping. I've given up trying now.

Back when I used to go out every other night and still make it into lectures the next day I used to think they should get some beds for napping at imperial, maybe they could put them in a room in the library... but then there'd be no reason to ever leave during revision, and that would just be depressing.

I think I might work on my napping technique after reading this.

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This is a terribly awesome post.

You know what study the world NEEDS though? The benefits of nap length as sleep deprivation increases. This is critically important information for new parents. Also, the US government could probably use DoD funding for it.

*holds out hand w/grabby motion* grant $$ please!

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I'm a huge fan of the nap. Also, I had to look up doonah. Turns out I like them.

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