Power Naps Improve Cognitive Function, Memory, and Mood

It’s no secret to anyone that’s taken a power nap before, you almost always feel better after you wake up. Quick power naps are most often thought to be a way to minimize feelings of fatigue or sleepiness, but a lesser known fact is they can also be used to boost your alertness, your ability to focus, creativity, and yes… your short-term memory.There’s a growing body of research supporting the notion that taking daytime naps is a smart thing to do, but what if you wanted to optimize nap-taking? What if you wanted to squeeze your power nap for every last memory-enhancing, focus-boosting drop? It turns out there are several ways to do exactly that.

Timing Your Nap for Max Benefit

As kids, we didn’t have to put much thought into timing our afternoon naps. We just went to sleep when we were told, or when there was a random car ride for any duration longer than 5 minutes. As adults we ought to have more control over our designated naptime, but most employers don’t condone sleeping during work hours (even though it could improve productivity), and many of us have developed a caffeine habit to get through the mid-afternoon lull.

Planning your nap around logistical barriers is important. Shoot for sometime in the afternoon, between classes or study-sessions, after lunch if your job allows naps, or immediately following work if it doesn’t. Ideally if you’re taking a power nap for the sake of improving cognitive abilities, you would take it shortly before any activity that requires concentration or learning.

It’s also a smart idea to time your caffeine intake around naps. According to this study from Loughborough University in the UK, drinking a caffeinated beverage immediately before taking a short nap provided the most cognitive benefits and alertness because the effects from the caffeine would kick in just as you were waking up.

Ideal Nap Duration

Sleep experts say the most beneficial naps are relatively short, about 20 minutes. There are 5 stages of sleep, but with a power nap the goal is to enter only the first two stages. If you go into a deeper sleep state, known as slow wave sleep, it will be substantially harder to wake up and you’ll be left with a foggy feeling. That’s not what we’re going for. Try to keep your nap around 20 minutes (it’s ok if you go a little over, my ideal nap duration is between 25 – 30 minutes) to get the benefits of enhanced memory, concentration, alertness, and motor skills.

Controlling External Factors

  1. Try to limit distractions as much as possible. You can wear earplugs to block out ambient sounds, and it’s best to find a dark room or wear an eyeshade to keep the light from becoming a distraction.
  2. Make sure to set an alarm to wake you up after 20-25 minutes. Remember, if you sleep too long you could slip into the deeper stages of sleep and your nap could have the opposite of the desired effect.
  3. Let go of your worries, to-do lists, and anything else that might be nagging you. Take some deep breaths, relax, and float off to dreamland. If you’re having a hard time relaxing, researchers recommend trying some meditation techniques for their calming effects.

And maybe the most important thing to realize is that everybody is different. If you have difficulty falling asleep at night, but when you finally do go to sleep it’s almost impossible to wake you (sleep inertia), short naps for you might be more like a relaxing meditation session. You may not fall asleep completely, but the brief restful period will still yield positive effects on your cognitive function and memory. Also if you frequently travel across time zones or work night shifts, this pattern will desynchronize your natural sleep and wake schedule (circadian rhythm), but appropriately timed naps could still make you feel more refreshed and alert.

It can be a balancing act, but there’s so much positive research in this area that it’s impossible to argue that it doesn’t work.

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