When I became a freelance writer, I had a pretty good idea that it was going to happen. I tried to avoid it by making appointments in the afternoon, I told myself that my willpower was strong enough to prevent it, but, deep down, I knew it was unavoidable: I would become a napper.
Even when I worked full-time in an office, the symptoms were there. After lunch, a lethargy would set in that even a double espresso with extra sugar had trouble budging. I’d find myself staring at the computer screen for long stretches of time, affecting the thoughtful look of someone parsing out their next sentence, but in actuality experiencing a complete mental silence. I’d call it zombie-like, except even zombies are thinking about how much they want to get their hands on some delicious, delicious brains.
So now I work from home, and I have indeed started taking daily naps. At first, I felt guilty about it. It was something that I did surreptitiously, despite having the house to myself. I didn’t want anyone to know about my postprandial snoozing because napping was lazy and decadent and showed a lack of focus and motivation. At least, that’s how I felt others would look at it. But I began to wonder why a quick afternoon kip had such a bad rap.
After all, it would seem that nappers like myself are in good company. Biologically speaking, the vast majority of mammals are polyphasic sleepers, meaning that they don’t separate the day into distinct sleeping and waking times, but sleep several times in a 24-hour period. My cats, for example, gleefully join me on the couch for my cat nap despite having spent the morning trying out various perches in their exhaustive daily search for the best place to catch a few z’s.
Across the globe, many countries are part of the so-called siesta culture, where a break of several hours is typically allowed for lunch and a nap, if one so desires. Although many of them are situated near the equator, where staying out of the midday sun might be part of the motivation for the custom, there are also siesta-friendly cultures in more northern European and Asian countries.
Nappers can even claim luminaries like Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, and Salvador Dali among their number, so it’s clear that enjoying a little beauty sleep midday doesn’t necessarily make you a slouch. But try using that explanation with your boss.
But even if napping is common and anecdotal evidence exists that it is not necessarily a sign of sloth, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is good for you. Determined to assuage my nap guilt and to have a bullet-proof explanation for anyone who might attack me for my sleep proclivity, I looked to that beloved resource for pedants everywhere: research reports. What do the experts say about the power nap?
According to a 2002 study funded by the National Institute for Mental Health, a nap helps to reverse mental burnout. The researchers found that when participants performed a visual task, their performance deteriorated over time. However, if they were allowed to take a nap between sessions, their performance returned to earlier levels. Researchers hypothesized that the visual cortex gradually becomes saturated with information and the brain needs sleep to consolidate and convert the information to memory.
This finding was backed up in 2005 by a sleep study conducted by NASA, which found that cognitive skills, in particular working memory, benefited from nap time. Working memory, as the lead researcher explains, “involves focusing attention on one task while holding other tasks in memory … and is a fundamental ability critical to performing complex work [like piloting a spaceship]. A poor working memory could result in errors.”
Hey, I have something in common with NASA astronauts! I also have to hold some stuff in my memory while doing something else. Like when I have to remember what I was about to write when my editor calls to check how an assignment is coming along. Granted, an error on my part is less likely to result in fiery and tragic loss of life, but still.
So far, the science gels with my experience. After spending the morning writing and researching, my brain is pretty fried by lunchtime. I grab a little shuteye and suddenly I’m ready to get back to it. I also find that I often wake up with the solution for a problem I’d been turning over all morning or with a new idea for an article. I’m definitely more focused and productive for the rest of the day.
Next, I read research that claimed napping assists with cell repair and hormonal maintenance. I’m not sure how my cells are getting along, but I do tend to be in a much better mood in the evenings, so I guess my experience bears out that hormone part. There was also a six-year Greek study that demonstrated nappers have a 34% lower risk of dying from heart disease. Well, I haven’t died yet, but I’ll probably have to get back to you on that one.
So what gives, corporate America? It’s in the best interests for everyone if we just let ourselves grab a quick nap from time to time, but getting that shuteye is becoming more and more difficult in the business culture. Being caught taking a quick break is treated as shameful and damaging, rather than a conscious (pun intended) effort to maintain your productivity, health and sanity. The only thing that is going to change that mindset is some out and proud nappers, so I for one will no longer be ashamed of my mid-afternoon snooze.
Now, if you will excuse me, I’m feeling a little drowsy and the couch is calling.