Research Suggests That Taking Naps Can Make You Smarter

Japanese businessmen take naps on benches in Tokyo

Japanese businessmen take naps on benches in Tokyo | Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

We typically associate naps with toddlers or the elderly because most adults simply don’t have the bandwidth to take an extended break to grab some sleep during the middle of the day. We have jobs, classes, and errands to attend to. We’re busy making sure other people are getting naps in — while we buzz around like caffeine-fueled tornadoes.

But that’s not to say naps aren’t beneficial. Most of us don’t get enough quality sleep, anyway. If you’re able to get a nap in during the day? There’s really no reason not to. It’ll help keep you energized, healthy, and according to new research, even help with learning ability. Yes, snoozing is linked to increased cognition and learning. So, you may want to knock out for a bit after that strategy meeting with your boss. You know, so you can really absorb the information.

According to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, taking naps (or getting a little sleep) while studying or otherwise trying to pick up something new can help you learn faster and better retain the information better. The researchers found it works best if brief periods of rest are worked into the workflow. While that doesn’t necessarily give you the green light to go lights-out at your desk or in the break room, a bit of sleep might be helpful for dealing with tough subjects.

Taking naps and learning

A man studying and learning online

A man studying and learning online | iStock.com/imtmphoto

“Both repeated practice and sleep improve long-term retention of information. The assumed common mechanism underlying these effects is memory reactivation,” the study reads. “We investigated whether sleep-dependent memory consolidation could help to save practice time during relearning.”

By taking a group of 40 people and exposing them to different conditions, the research team got to work. The subjects had a goal of learning 16 words in a new language. Some members of the group started studying in the morning, took a subsequent break, and got back to it in the evening. Others started in the evening, went to bed, and started again in the morning. The researchers were basically trying to test whether or not getting some sleep between sessions made a difference. As it turns out, the difference was considerable.

“We found that interweaving sleep between learning sessions not only reduced the amount of practice needed by half but also ensured much better long-term retention,” the study says. “Sleeping after learning is definitely a good strategy, but sleeping between two learning sessions is a better strategy.

There you have it — getting some shut-eye can actually help you retain more knowledge and learn more efficiently. Does that mean you can nap your way to a MacArthur Fellowship? Probably not, but it does add another tool to your toolbox.

Nap and learn: A practical strategy?

A man sleeping at his desk

A man sleeping at his desk | iStock.com

While this research gives us yet more reasons to lobby for more sleep, the practicality here is what most people will find befuddling. Most of us have a daily routine that we can’t veer too far away from. Whether you go to school full time or work, chances are you don’t have that much leeway to head home for a midday nap. So, how can we put this kind of research to practical use? There may not be a broad answer. But on an individual basis? You might be able to do plenty.

If you’re a student, you can try changing up your research habits to sleep between them. In the study, they did this by having a group learn at night, go to bed, and then resume in the morning. That may be one possible way to arrange your schedule. Or, if you block off a few hours to study, you can try grabbing a short nap during that time to see if there’s any effect.

As for working adults? We’re all learning too, constantly. Whether it’s job training or anything else, retaining information is important. And the same rules apply — you may not be able to take a nap in the middle of the workday, but you might be able to rearrange your tasks so you’re getting some sleep between periods of learning. Try it to see if it has any impact on your retention

Sleep is important, and now we know it can actually help us become better learners. You might not want to fall asleep on the job, but if worse comes to worse, you can make the case you were simply trying to absorb some new material.