The neurobiology of the afternoon nap

afternoon nap, midday nap, brain health, emotion, learning and memory, sleep

One seemingly ordinary Saturday afternoon in June 2013, an unusual experience awaited me in a furniture store: I lay on a high-tech bed, feeling its gentle vibrations and soft hums, watching an informative presentation on a nearby screen.

Within minutes, a detailed report emerged, suggesting a selection of mattresses tailored to my sleep preferences, with the top recommendation priced at $5839.00.

Was this a clever sales tactic? Definitely!

Interestingly, the Sleep 101 presentation, part of my unique mattress fitting experience, was surprisingly accurate and informative about the intricacies of sleep science.

Sleep is essential to your body’s overall wellness, both physically and emotionally

But you know that. I’m not going to dwell on the benefits of a good night’s sleep in this blog post because we’re all very well aware of how terrible we feel without adequate sleep.

Instead, I will focus on my other favourite sleep issue, one that I’m a passionate devotee of — the afternoon nap!

Professor Leon Lack, a sleep scientist at Flinders University in Adelaide, says,

A brief nap can not only reduce sleepiness but also improves cognitive functioning and psychomotor performance (the brain telling the body to move). A few minutes of shut-eye also considerably enhance short-term memory and mood.

A quick backgrounder in sleep

Sleep is divided into two major phases of brain activity but named after the eye-ball movement …

  • rapid-eye-movement (REM)
  • non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep.

When you first fall asleep, you experience NREM sleep, and then 60 to 90 minutes later, REM sleep kicks in. During a normal night, a healthy adult will experience 4 to 6 consecutive cycles of REM and NREM sleep.

During NREM sleep, your body can move, but your eyes don’t; your breathing and heart rate slow, and your blood pressure falls. Blood flow to the brain decreases, and electroencephalograms (EEGs – recordings of brain activity) show slowing brain activity.

When you cycle into REM sleep, your body becomes immobile, and your eyes move rapidly. Your blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate increase, and blood flow to the brain increases (and my gentlemen readers can attest to blood flow into other areas of the anatomy, too). EEG activity also increases, and you begin to dream.

You also dream just as you enter NREM too.

NREM sleep is essential for learning and memory

Neuroscientists have been gathering evidence that rats need NREM sleep to learn. When rats explored a maze for the first time, patterns of electrical activity recorded from brain cells in the hippocampus (the brain structure involved in learning and memory) were repeated in the hippocampus during post-learning sleep.

Scientists think that maze memories become consolidated during NREM sleep. Rats deprived of post-learning sleep were worse at finding their way through the maze than rats that slept.

This experiment has been repeated in humans.

People were invited to spend a day in the lab with Harvard sleep scientist Professor Robert Stickgold. They were trained to navigate through a virtual map around lunchtime and immediately tucked up for a siesta. Neuroscientists monitored their brain waves via EEG and woke them if they started to fall into REM sleep. The second maze navigator group was left to sit quietly but not nap.

The nappers performed much better than the non-nappers when they were retested at navigating the maze.

Professor Robert Stickgold reported,

Sleep enhances memories.  It makes them stronger and more effective

My ongoing afternoon siesta research has taught me that the key to making the most of the afternoon nap is to keep it short. When I feel the mid-afternoon slump coming, I give in to it! I set my iPhone for 30 minutes, so I don’t fall into a deep sleep (and I assume without running my EEG that I’m avoiding REM sleep). I never wake feeling groggy, so the napping doesn’t interfere with my sleep that night.

Boost your memory and mood by taking a short afternoon nap

As it happens. In 2015, I was invited to give a TEDx talk and chose to discuss my love for and evidence in favour of the strategic afternoon nap.

Is napping a friend or foe?

In the paragraphs and TedX talk above, I describe the cognitive benefits of afternoon naps. Or, as I like to call it the ‘strategic nap’. Naps facilitate executive functioning, memory formation, subsequent learning, and emotional regulation. However, a few studies link frequent napping with adverse outcomes, especially in older people. These are summarised in a 2017 Sleep Medicine Review.

The review states,

In spite of these reported benefits of naps, frequent napping has also been associated with numerous negative outcomes (eg, cognitive decline, hypertension, diabetes), particularly in older populations.

Is there a paradox?

One reason for the apparent bi-directional effects of napping may be the purpose of the nap. As the reviewers point out,

…the discrepancy in findings may exist because chronic napping (ie, frequent napping over the course of many months or years) could be distinct from acute napping (ie, a single nap in a well-controlled setting).

As I mentioned, I like to refer to ‘strategic napping’  — napping for a short period for specific reasons and not sleeping to fill in time, or napping due to boredom, recovery or poor health.

Should afternoon naps be prescribed?

In summary, the reviewers say,

In healthy, young individuals, a mid-day nap is beneficial. A bout of mid-day sleep minimizes sleepiness while enhancing executive functioning. Naps also facilitate memory consolidation, subsequent learning, and emotional processing, while providing additional somatic benefits.

In young, healthy populations who are in need of emotional or cognitive intervention, napping could be prescribed.

In older populations, excessive napping has been linked with negative outcomes. Yet there is no direct evidence suggesting that mid-day napping is detrimental.

Therefore, it is also premature to prescribe napping in this population. In the future, studies focusing on the link between napping and negative outcomes, as well as potential interactions with inflammatory markers, would be useful in disentangling directionality.

There we have it again! More research is required.

Do you ever indulge in an afternoon nap?

Leave a comment below and tell me if you’ll be more likely or less likely to try to fit in a siesta after reading this post.

This blog was updated in December 2019 to reflect current research.

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  1. Susan Halloran on June 21, 2013 at 11:18 am

    I find 15 minutes is enough for me which means I have to set my iPhone for 16 minutes – cos it never takes me more than a minute to go to sleep anytime of day or night or anywhere for that matter. I know there are insomniacs everywhere who will hate me BUT I believe you can train yourself to go to sleep. And… the benefits of even 5 minutes “shut eye” cannot be overstated! Snooze on…

  2. Admin on June 21, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    I’m the same Sue – 2 minutes and I’m out for the count! It was interesting in the sleep store – they were saying that most people in buying a new bed report trouble sleeping. They said they rarely get someone in (like me) that says they sleep well!

  3. Anne Barrett on July 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    I’ve often needed a 15 minute recharge in the afternoon and working from home makes this easier for me. I know I can only have 15 minutes so my brain doesn’t let me fall into a deep sleep but the benefits of resting and relaxing into a light sleep is very beneficial.

  4. Carole Davenport on July 15, 2013 at 1:47 am

    Thanks for the good read!
    I started taking naps when my babies were small. But I couldn’t afford to sleep long, because of grogginess. I trained my body to get up after 10 minutes. When I lay down, I go to my ‘sleep place’ … usually a beach somewhere. I feel the warmth of the sun, the gentle breeze, and the comfort of the sand. I’m usually immediately asleep!
    I try to take a 10 minute morning nap – usually around 9, and another nap around 3. I have tons of energy and typically sleep well at night. (though I usually only sleep 6 hours) I allow myself to wake on my own (no alarms) and get up immediately when I wake.
    This routine sure works well for me!

    • Admin on July 15, 2013 at 9:41 am

      Two naps a day! Wonder if that doubles your cognitive powers??

  5. Annette Swann on July 20, 2013 at 8:13 am

    Nice article, thank you! I read an article recently that neuroscientists have worked out that 26 minutes is optimal nap length between 1-3pm before hitting deep sleep. I enjoy a nanna nap when I can!

    Some enlightened companies have provided nap rooms to employees and they are always booked out eg: Huffington Post in New York (full article here

    • Admin on July 20, 2013 at 3:19 pm

      26 minutes! I LOVE it!

  6. Charlotte on July 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    I typically take a 15 minute nap after lunch, maybe around 1, and then wake up and have my first cup of coffee for the day and a square of dark chocolate. It feels so indulgent, and in 20 minutes I am refreshed and ready to tackle the remainder of the day.

    • Admin on July 27, 2013 at 7:24 pm

      Sounds like my kind of perfect day! And there is some evidence showing that coffee prevents dementia. So drink up!

  7. John Todor on November 6, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Give the research supporting naps, I am surprised that many so called sleep experts still tell you it will ruin your night-time sleep. It would be nice if someone would reconcile the two.

    • Sarah McKay on November 6, 2013 at 4:05 pm

      A very short nap is key, I believe.

  8. Daffodil on March 7, 2014 at 8:41 am

    I had a brain Haeomorrhage 2 years ago and have leant that just sitting and being completely still or quiet for 30 minutes each day makes a massive difference to how I function. Early on in my recovery I used to have multiple naps during the day, but now I nap for 30 minutes every three or four days which is enough of a boost as long as I still get quiet time in between. If I don’t do this then my memory starts slipping, my balance falters and I can see the physical impact. So I am a convert to naps and down time as being a great way to rest the brain.

    • Sarah McKay on March 7, 2014 at 10:35 am

      Wow…. great testament to the power of napping and memory. Glad to hear you’ve found a way to heal.

  9. Steven Archer on December 10, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Huge fan of the afternoon nap and get a great second wind in the evening! ….. am interested to know what the benefits of REM sleep are ….. my old learning was that REM was most important for learning ….. looking forward to seeing more ….. great article 🙂

    • Sarah McKay on December 11, 2014 at 8:29 am

      Good point! I’ll try make some time to look into this Steven.

  10. John Terrey on August 15, 2015 at 8:23 am

    I learnt to deep relax when at university as part of a study on the effect of short deep relaxation on exam anxiety. Over the last 40 years or so, I have continued the practice and find a great beneficial effect on learning. When confronted with a new complex idea, I trust my brain to sort it out after feeding it as much relevant information as possible and then sleeping on it in the form of a short deep relaxation “nap”.

    I can also sleep anytime using the same techniques.

  11. Peggy on December 14, 2019 at 4:44 pm

    Thank you Sarah for your advocacy of napping. My family…all of us…were “Nappers”…acceptable in the family…but embarrassing to admit to others. Didn’t stop me…or them. I take a nap almost everyday…and have since I was a little girl…and my children were little ones…now “big ones”. It is not that I can’t forge through a whole day…I have always felt that listening to your body is the most important thing we can do for health and longevity. I feel vindicated…not that I ever needed an excuse!

  12. Amy Saunders on February 21, 2022 at 1:51 am

    Hi! One of my colleagues finds it really difficult to stay focused while working almost every day. Thank God you informed us that a quick power nap should be more than enough to reenergize our memory energy. I’ll show this article to him so he’ll be able to strengthen his brain’s ability soon.

  13. Malathi Swaminathan on June 2, 2022 at 6:12 pm

    Interesting read!! As usual scientific yet pragmatic.

    I appreciate this whole concept. My lingering doubt is – do these nap interfere in night sleep? Especially for the elderly or who despite the power nap are sedentary after that.

  14. Sally Potter on June 6, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    I love a nap! My kids are amazed at my ability to say ‘I’m just going to have a quick sleep’. I then make myself comfortable, fall asleep for 10 minutes and wake up ready to start wherever I left off 🙂
    I teach all my clients (I’m a hypnotherapist) about the benefits of napping, and It’s amazing how many of them see a nap as cheating until they find out how beneficial it can be. For lots of people, letting go enough to fall asleep quickly is a challenge that takes a lot of practice to overcome.

  15. james8801brown on June 28, 2022 at 12:54 am

    Hello! If you sleep for more than 20 minutes, sleep will become deep. It takes time to get out of it completely. This is called “sleep inertia. After a deep sleep, recovery lasts from 20 to 40 minutes. In working conditions, this is inconvenient,” the scientist explained. If a person has an irregular working day, then an hour of sleep will be good for him. until the evening.

  16. Iris Whitelock on December 14, 2023 at 3:37 pm

    Hi Sarah, thank you for re-posting this TED-talk, and for the article about napping. Yesterday I got to a point where I had a virtual maze in my head, trying to juggle all the projects I am planning for next year. Because I wasn’t getting anywhere with my planning exercise, I decided to take a nap. I have a well-loved relaxation CD a psychologist gave me about 10 years ago, which has about 20-30 minutes of guided visualisation – working through the body from the scalp down to the feet, and visualisations of cool green forests and warm sandy beaches. I always use this for a nap – I don’t find it easy to go to sleep – but with this recording, I rarely get as far as relaxing my legs before I am off…
    Yesterday, as I turned on the CD and lay down, I realised what I needed to do to untangle my mental mess – it was so simple. So I had my +- 20 minute nap and then got on with preparing the whiteboard I needed for a timeline. Knowing that I had that solution also relieved the stress I had been feeling about contacting various people and discussing my plans, asking for their input and assistance.
    As you said in the video, there were multiple advantages/benefits from taking that short nap, even after I had figured out how to relieve my spaghetti-mind! I was kinder to myself, too!
    Thank you – I always read your emails and loved the courses I did with you! xx Iris

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