Not Just for the Lazy
Napping may seem like a sign of laziness, but the truth is that your brain is never busier than when you’re sprawled out on the sofa for your afternoon shut-eye. A 2003 study led by Robert Stickgold found that 60-90 minute naps help facilitate learning. In 2008, sleep scientists found that a mere 6 minute nap strengthens memory.
Napping has also been shown to fuel creativity. A 2009 study at UC San Diego found that sleep radically improved people’s performance on a test of creative problem solving. According to the researchers behind the study, one possible explanation is that sleep activates different parts of people’s brains, opening up new perspectives.
The Power of Dreams
A blockbuster 2010 study by scientists at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center shed some light on why napping is so helpful for the brain. The researchers asked 99 participants to work a complicated maze and recorded how long it took them to complete it. Half the maze solvers then rested but remained awake while the other half enjoyed a 90 minute nap before everyone was again asked to tackle the puzzle.
The second time around, subjects who had stayed awake found the maze about as difficult as they had the first time, and subjects who had slept without dreaming about the maze were refreshed and found the maze slightly easier than before. However, subjects who had dreamed about the maze dramatically outperformed both other groups. This result suggests that the mind dreams about things partly to understand them better.
Sleep on It
It turns out that if you have a tough problem you are trying to solve, one of the best strategies may be to work on the problem a little, then take a nap. You might wake up with the answer, or at least a fresh insight. Keep that in mind the next time you are stumped by a word search puzzle!