Saturday, July 7, 2007 | Americans sleep an average of 6.7 hours per night and we have become a nation of the “walking tired.” So says University of California, San Diego, researcher Sara Mednick, who’s been on a book tour this year to promote her research on the benefits of midday napping. Media coverage of Mednick and her book, titled “Take a Nap! Change Your Life: The Scientific Plan to Make You Smarter, Healthier, More Productive” has made Mednick into a sort of Pied Piper for closet nappers nationwide, who’ve been e-mailing her with their nap strategies and stories.

Mednick sat down with to dish on the best places, times and reasons to nap. And to confess: Her own morning routine includes coffee.

I’d read that this was something you got started thinking about while you were in grad school. Not just because it was something that you were studying, but because it was something you were doing in real life, right?

Well, the way it happened was that — I knew I wanted to study sleep and learning. But I didn’t really have a mentor at that time that was interested in that topic. Then I met Robert Stickgold (at Harvard) and he does this really interesting stuff on sleep and learning and I thought, well, I knew that was something I wanted to do but I didn’t know quite how to do it. So I started thinking about how all the research that looks at sleep is really about nocturnal sleep. And I had known a lot of people who were nappers, and I really wasn’t a napper myself.

But I thought, you know, how is it that these people could just go on and on about how important napping is for them, and there doesn’t seem to be any research to describe it or understand it? So I started doing, basically, the same studies Bob was doing, but instead of a nocturnal sleep at night in between test one and test two, I just put a nap in between.

And I actually found two things that were pretty interesting. One is that, you know, a nap really helped with memory. … But also, people that didn’t nap performed worse in the afternoon. … And so, it seems that that whole idea of us being awake for as long as we are during the day may not be conducive to optimal performance levels, and that napping is actually a part of staying at our optimal performance levels.

Well, that’s a cultural thing, right? Because there are many cultures around the world that embrace the nap, the afternoon siesta, the longer lunches, having dinner in the middle of the day and going back to work. It seems it’s an American thing — the long work days and working for more than 12 hours and the more time you put in, the better …

Yeah, and some of the most productive countries are actually nappers. Japan and China and all European countries — Germany’s the country that naps the most. There’s the idea that people have in their heads about napping and there’s the reality, the people who actually are napping that are very productive. They’re very regimented in the time that they spend doing all these different things, and yet they say they can do those things because of their nap.

What is that idea that you think people have about napping? Is it a vestige of when we’re little, our parents say it’s naptime and we kind of recoil against that?

No, I don’t think that that’s what it is. Because I think that if people could retain some of those things from their childhood, they probably would. [laughs] I actually think it’s more of a cultural thing, you know. That when America came into being — this is just conjecture, obviously — that there were a lot of things that we let go of from our European ancestors. We were on our own, and we were “go, go, go” and we were all about productivity. And anything that sort of smacked of the Old World seemed to be dropped.

And I think there might be a relationship between that habit of wanting to make it our own and the go, go, go, 24-hour society, and letting go of the nap as well. And I think that now, more and more people are looking and seeing that nappers are doing really, really well, and other countries are doing really well — and they still nap. So you don’t have to give up everything, to throw out the baby and the bathwater.

When you’re advocating people take a nap during the day, is there a boundary past which you shouldn’t go? I mean, is there a minute allowance that, once you pass it, you’re really just sort of in a coma for the rest of the afternoon?

For people who are just on the go, and who really just want a pick-me-up, 20 minutes is a good amount of time to nap; you don’t really want to go longer than that. If you go longer than 20 minutes, you’ll go into a deeper stage of sleep, and that is actually harder to wake up from — you’ll feel kind of disoriented. If you have time, and you can nap longer, then I would suggest napping 20 minutes or less, or 60 minutes or more, because then you get into REM sleep, which is very light sleep and is easy to wake up from.

So, when you’ve been touring to talk about the book you’ve written on your research and all these findings, have there been nappers that have come out of the closet across the country? Have their been people that have, sort of, resonated with what you’re talking about, that there’s not really much (other) research out there?

Yeah, that’s exactly the way I’d put it, actually, the coming out of the closet. The way people write to me, I get these beautiful e-mails from people telling me about their napping habits and everyone usually says, “I thought I was the only one; I thought I was the only one in my office; I’m so surprised to hear there’s other people doing this; I thought this was just my little thing; everyone thought I was so weird.”

So there does seem to be this kind of interesting aspect of it, which is that every person who’s been napping has come to it on their own, as a way to survive, basically, and to get more out of their life. And a lot of people say things like, “All of my coworkers get so tired at the end of the day, and they’re just dragging through.” And they say, in the same way that I say, it’s such a secret weapon — you’ve got no idea how powerful it is to wake up and feel like the whole rest of the day is there and I’ll be at my optimal level of alertness and performance.

Do you personally embrace and implement these naps into your everyday life?

I definitely do. I nap here (the floor in her office) or I nap in the car a lot if I have to go from one place to the next. You know, even a five-minute period of just putting the chair back and tuning out. Also, after work I like to have a little nap before I go off and do whatever I’m doing, because then I’m kind of refreshed and I have a life after work.

That’s interesting. I think that’s probably a big reason why people might try to implement this, in the same way that you implement a workout into your day.

Yeah, I actually do it right before my workout, because I feel like it’s really hard for me to work out when I’m tired. And usually, after work, I’m tired and just sort of lacking in motivation. And whatever I’m going to do — if I’m going running or going to a yoga class or whatever, I just get there a little bit early and take a nap and feel refreshed.

Have people been telling you about the places where they like to nap? I mean, during the work day in a corporate environment, it might be kind of tricky to find a place to sleep.

People usually say the park, or their cars. A lot of people work at home that nap every day — they’re fortunate to have that time to sort of regulate themselves. But that’s usually the places. People usually leave work. There’s not a lot of places that actually condone or support napping in the office.

Do you think that will change?

Yeah, I do. Because recently, my publisher — I had a wonderful publisher and that was Workman Publishing — and Peter Workman wanted to really test out the book. He said let’s have people napping. And I said, let’s do it in a way that we can actually get some data for it. And so we had 40 volunteers and half napped one month and the other half napped the other month. And for two months, they recorded their sleep, their well-being, their activity, their health, how much they slept at night, how well they slept at night, how much coffee they drink.

And then at the end of it, we compared the month that they weren’t napping and the month that they were napping, and found, surprisingly, that the nocturnal sleep doesn’t change at all. … They said that they were still able to get really good nocturnal sleep. Actually, improvements in nocturnal sleep. You know, it’s the same process for babies, who, when they don’t nap, they actually get worse sleep at night. And I think this might also be true for [adults], that if you actually do sleep well in the day that you are less easily excited — or whatever it is that actually makes it very hard for people to fall asleep at night. And so, this is just a small amount of data to support that.

The main thing is that the whole month that they were napping, all of the subjective measures of mood, health, daytime sleepiness — they all mentioned that the sleepiness decreased and the other subjective measures increased. So that’s a really great bit of information so that I can now, say, start going to businesses and saying, “How ’bout you just start a nap initiative here? You know, we’ll see how it goes. Just give it two months and let me set this up … and if you find that it’s worth it and that your company is actually doing better, with people napping, then that might be something that you might want to offer.”

Now, we hear about that with MDs who are doing their residency and having to sleep on-the-job, and obviously, they’re notorious for not getting enough sleep in general and working through the sleeping hours, but there’s definitely some places, especially in the medical world, where that on-the-job nap is expected, part of the job. So maybe in the corporate world as well …

Exactly, and more and more doctors and nurses really are the ones that we care the most about, right? Because they have our lives in their hands, and there’s definitely important research that’s come out in the last few years showing that doctors who are sleep-deprived can make 700 percent more mistakes. And those are some serious numbers. So, in the medical world, definitely, I’d like to get napping to be part of the regular day and night. But also, in the corporate world, I’m sure that there’s, not only lives at stake but also, you know, millions of dollars. The error rate that increases as you get tired is just exponential.

Now, what’s the craziest place you’ve ever napped?

In college, I fell asleep on my professor’s arm. (laughs) I was sitting next to him and I fell asleep while he was talking and I woke up when he was kind of moving his arm and I realized, “Oh, no.” …

But I do have a friend who’s a really excellent napper and one time he said he was on a train, on a moving train, and he fell asleep with his head out the window.

Now, can that be learned? Can you learn to nap better? … Some people say it takes them 20 minutes just to fall asleep.

Yeah, your body is very much a creature of habit. So if you just make it a conscious effort that you lie down at the same time every day, and to not put any pressure on yourself to actually fall asleep, you know, within the first week. Have it be, you’re just taking a break. It’s after lunch, and you’ve still got 20 minutes, and eventually what will happen is that you’ll find that, just, oh, I woke up. OK, you just took your first nap.

In a culture that’s so obsessed with caffeine and energy drinks — coffee and triple espressos and getting that energy from an outside source being ingested — is this something that counteracts that or works with? Or, how do you see the relationship between napping and some of those external boosts that are sold in 7-Eleven?

I just presented this data looking at comparing napping to caffeine on memory tests. And all of the tests, caffeine makes you perform worse … than placebo, than nothing at all, and than napping. So it’s kind of a funny thing, you know — caffeine is the most widely-used stimulant in the world, but there’s very little research that actually looks at its effects on our brains in terms of beyond our initial awareness. So, if you’re sleep-deprived, it’ll help you not get into a car accident, for sure. But whether in well-rested adults, if they have caffeine in the afternoon instead of having a nap, is that going to make them perform better? No, it’s probably going to make them perform worse.

So this is something you’re hoping will replace that obsessed-with-caffeine culture.

Yeah, and it would be a definite shift. It would definitely be that, as a culture, we would have to say, OK, let go of that immediate rush and go to something that’s more long-term, with a wider range of benefits. But the rush of caffeine is hard. First off, we’re addicted. So a lot of people’s desire to have caffeine is actually to stave off any kind of withdrawal systems. And also just that feeling of “Oh, I just got that perk.” That’s something that’s difficult to get away from when you have the choice of taking a quick nap or having that quick jolt.

So, do you drink coffee?

I drink it in the mornings, so definitely. I actually think that probably caffeine has some good benefits. It may be that if you drink it before you’re tired … you know, the jury’s out, really, on when you should be drinking caffeine, and why. It may be that caffeine is actually not going to make your brain perform better. But it may be a good baseline to start out with. …

At the same time, I’m also addicted. (laughs) So, I don’t know. I would probably really do well — I have this funny thing where in the morning, I write, I do yoga, and I have coffee — and probably, if I just had yoga and didn’t do caffeine, I’d probably have the same benefit. But I still have this kind of addiction. So, it’s confusing.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

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