I have just woken up. It’s the middle of the day and I realise that sensible and serious people shouldn’t be snoozing in broad daylight. That said, I am a big believer in a nap when you feel the overwhelming post-lunch tiredness. In fact, napping at any time is good with me.
Years ago when I worked in an office, I remember fighting sleep, trying not to put my head on the desk. But my body was telling me to sleep.
At around about 2pm every day, my brain shuts down and I need to curl up for a snooze. But when I was in the office environment, instead of the quick afternoon nap, I forced myself to drink reservoirs of water to try and stay awake.
The office experience echoed a previous one. The same mid-afternoon sleepiness afflicted me throughout secondary school.
There we were, 35 teenagers of totally different abilities and interests crammed into an oppressively stuffy room. We tried to concentrate as the teacher wrote down things on the blackboard. This we copied into our copybooks and somehow this was supposed to go into our heads.
In the US, a recent Harvard study proved what us nappers already know: taking a nap can make you more productive for the rest of the day. A study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34pc and alertness by 100pc. Naps reduce mistakes and accidents.
In Australia, researchers at Flinders University proved that “the five-minute nap produced few benefits in comparison with the no-nap control. The 10-minute nap produced immediate improvements in all outcome measures (including sleep latency, subjective sleepiness, fatigue, vigour, and cognitive performance), with some of these benefits maintained for as long as 155 minutes. The 20-minute nap was associated with improvements emerging 35 minutes after napping and lasting up to 125 minutes after napping. The 30-minute nap produced a period of impaired alertness and performance immediately after napping, indicative of sleep inertia, followed by improvements lasting up to 155 minutes after the nap”.
Despite this scientific evidence and the day-to-day experience of millions of people who feel recharged after a nap, our culture is very much one that regards the nap as a sign of laziness rather than an activity that can boost productivity.
A few months back the excellent ‘Financial Times’ writer Simon Kuper made this precise point – that the person who might snatch 10 minutes kip is regarded in this part of the world as a slacker rather than someone who knows how to re-energise.
We know that a whole array of productive people from Albert Einstein to Churchill and Roosevelt were all afternoon nappers and yet the nap is frowned upon.
The reason I am fixated with the nap today, is because school starts this morning and our house is full of new schoolbooks. After a long summer of hanging out – and yes, napping when they wanted to – the children are about to head into another academic year where they will be expected to cram all sorts of facts into their heads.
This process of stuffing various and, as they would say, random, facts into their heads is what we call teaching. But teaching is something that is done to you and learning is something you do for yourself.
In order to learn, your brain has to be in the right mood to remember things. If you are tired, your brain simply won’t be able to function properly, or at least not at its optimum. Millions of children would find homework much easier if they took a nap before doing it.
A second aspect of learning is how to memorise. This is crucial because so much of our exam system is a giant memory test.
The best way to memorise is not by frantic last-minute cramming but by a constant process of repetition and reminding. Memorising is like a giant fridge door in your head with little notes stuck on it reminding you to do things.
So a little bit every night helps enormously as does paying attention in class.
How often did you daydream in class because you were tired and couldn’t focus? In my case it was every day, lots of times, because all I wanted to do was sleep.
Given that we know now about the recuperative and restorative process of napping in the day and the fact that teenagers need lots of sleep, might it not be a good idea to re-organise the school day to accommodate the nap?
Wouldn’t it be nice to dispel for once the notion that naps are for the lazy and unambitious or for older people with lots of time?
The guy who falls asleep at his desk is ridiculed – I know because I was that worker. When you doze off, you feel guilty. But you shouldn’t, our culture should embrace this.
From schooling to the workplace, our hours are structured in a robotic fashion, placing an inordinate emphasis on presenteeism, on simple measurement and what might be termed head-count management.
For the economy in general, if we are teaching tired children and expecting tired workers to perform, we are doing precisely the opposite of the much-heralded smart-economy. This 19th century assembly line model of school and work is more of a dumb economy.
In order to compete with the rest of the world, we ought to begin by re-organising our day so that we use our brains when they are at their most fit, not when they are most tired.