Catnapping: Memory Booster

LOOKING to boost your memory? Then go napping.

Study shows that a daytime snooze can help the brain retain things it has learned. Even a short slumber, as little as 45 minutes in length, can do the trick.

The study found that an afternoon cat nap provided other benefits in addition to memory boost including stress relief, mood improvement, and increased productivity.

Quality sleep is as essential to good health as a nutritious diet and getting regular exercise, yet many of us are frighteningly used to going through life with heavy eyelids. This has a disastrous effect on our day-to-day lives and can have dangerous consequences to our long and short-term health. Missing hours of sleep immediately increases our anxiety, forgetfulness and our ability to be distracted, putting us at greater risk of injury (4% of car accidents are caused by drowsy driving).  Sleep deprivation over longer periods of time causes cardiovascular disease, depression and insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes).  So even if it feels relatively ‘normal’ for you to be underslept, it’s a norm you need work on changing.  Most adults require between 7 and 9 hours of sleep, with some individual variation on either side. How is this study different from previous findings?

Studies have previously shown that sleep can improve memory; the new study from the journal of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory suggests that even a brief nap can help the process of learned information being moved into long-term memory storage areas called the hippocampus. A total of 41 participants took part in the study and were asked to learn a list of 90 single words and 120 unrelated word pairs. The unrelated word pairs were used to eliminate the possibility that participants may have remembered the words as a result of familiarity. Then participants were required to complete a memory recall test.

Half of the participants were asked to take a nap of up to 90 minutes, and the others watched a DVD. Brain activity of those napping was measured with an electroencephalogram (EEG) while they slept. A burst of activity found in the hippocampus region indicated memory consolidation was taking place.

When compared with participants who watched the DVD, those who napped for 45 to 60 minutes performed roughly five times better when it came to remembering.

What do Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison all have in common? These noted geniuses of our time are all known to have valued an afternoon nap. People in the United States are becoming more and more sleep deprived, and our busy lifestyles keep us from napping. Naps don’t necessarily make up for inadequate or poor quality nighttime sleep, but a short 20 to 30 minute nap can help to improve mood, alertness, and performance according to some experts.

There are 3 different types of napping. First, the Planned napping (also known as preparatory napping) is when you take a nap before you actually get sleepy. Some use this technique when they know that they will be up later than their normal bedtime or as a mechanism to shake off getting tired early. Next, there is emergency napping, which occurs when you are suddenly extremely tired and can’t continue with the activity you were previously engaged in. This is often used to combat drowsy driving or fatigue while using heavy and/or dangerous machinery.  And finally, there is habitual napping and it’s practiced when a person takes a nap at the same time each day.

When’s the last time you took a nap? Perhaps it’s time you’ve tried. It just might make you smarter or at the very least give your memory a boost!

An ultra-short catnap may be just as good as a long sleep for improving memory performance, scientists in Germany reported today. The scientists said it could be the very process of falling asleep that’s beneficial to the brain, and that the sleep itself may be merely a side effect.

Throughout history some of the world’s most brilliant minds have disregarded the importance of sleep. Inventor Thomas Edison, for one, was particularly outspoken about it, regarding sleeping as a waste of time and claiming he only needed 3 or 4 hours each night. (He might be pleased to know his invention of the lightbulb is credited with stripping us of 1-2 hours of sleep each night.) However, what Edison neglected to share publicly was that he’d mastered the art of the power-nap (a short 15-20 minute snooze) and would take them regularly throughout the day; his home and laboratory were set up with various cots to accommodate these ‘mini sleep’ sessions, and many photographers caught snapshots of his dozing habits.  These days it’s agreed upon that naps can do wonders for our health; they improve our alertness, learning ability, performance and memory.  If you’re lucky enough to find the time, a midday catnap may be well worth your while.

How Long To Nap.  Research has shown that even naps as short as six-minutes, known asultra-short sleep episodes, can improve our long-term memory.  According to sleep expert and author Sara C. Mednick, PhD, “You can get incredible benefits from 15 to 20 minutes of napping.  You reset the system and get a burst of alertness and increased motor performance. That’s what most people really need to stave off sleepiness and get an energy boost.”   Meanwhile, naps of 30-60 minutes (slow-wave sleep) are good for decision-making, recalling directions and memorizing vocabulary.  Longer naps of 60-90 minutes are when rapid eye movement (REM) generally occurs; this plays an essential role in making new connections in the brain. A complete sleep cycle is 90 minutes (not that most people have this much time free during the day) and these long snoozes aid in creativity and memory.

If you are going to take a nap, what are some ways to get the most out of it? Find your sweet spot for sleeping — a place where you can easily fall asleep, limit the noise and light — and find a place where the temperature is comfortable. Don’t nap too late in the day — it may affect your nighttime sleeping patterns and make it harder to fall asleep. Limit your naps — you may want to sleep forever, but previous research shows that nap that lasts longer than 30 minutes can make you feel groggy, rather than refreshed. A short nap, around 10-20 minutes, improves short-term alertness.

How can a midday nap improve your brain’s learning power? A small study of 39 people found that a midday nap helped them in memory exercises. Those who napped performed 20 percent better than those who didn’t. Researchers believe the sleep may help clear out a part of the brain called the hippocampus — the brain’s short-term memory storage — and make room for new learning and information.

That may be particularly important for students who are prepping for an upcoming exam — sleep may improve their studying and retention of information. Other parts of the world have been practicing this, such as Spain, where people take siestas — nap breaks during the day.

According to the latest research, how long does a nap have to be to boost your memory? In this particular study, they napped 90 minutes in the middle of the day, around 2 p.m. However, the researcher, Matt Walker from the University of California – Berkeley, says it’s really specifically about one type of sleep in general: — stage 2, non-REM sleep. This type of sleep happens between deep sleep and the dream state — and may account for half of your sleep. Researchers once believed this phase was merely a transition, but this new study shows that it may have more restorative functions to your memory and brain.

Sleep’s not just vital to memory. How it can be important to overall health? It can help regulate your moods, productivity, weight and energy levels. Sleep’s just as important as exercise and diet — studies have shown that not getting enough sleep can make you heavier, because sleep deprivation plays tricks on the hormones (leptin and ghrelin) that can control your appetite. A previous study found that sleep deprivation increased the desire for high carbohydrate, calorie-dense foods.

Every person has a different “sleep number,” but according to the National Sleep Foundation, the general rule of thumb is seven-to-nine hours of sleep per night.

The research suggests that most of the memory improvement is linked to changes that occur in the brain just as you start to doze off, said Olaf Lahl, a researcher at the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the University of Duesseldorf and the study’s lead author. “These processes remain active for a certain time period even if sleep is terminated shortly thereafter,” he said.

Sleep experts were surprised that just six minutes of snoozing could lead to better learning and memory. “You can’t argue with data,” said Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis and a professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “Still, this is a small group of individuals and it needs to be replicated.”

The results may help scientists get a better handle on just what happens when we go to sleep, said Matthew Tucker, a researcher at Harvard University School of Medicine and the Center for Sleep and Cognition at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Scientists do know that there are big changes in the brain just as a person falls asleep, Tucker said.

“There are dramatic shifts in brain chemistry and electrophysiology,” he said. “For example, we know that levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine go down. And we think that when acetylcholine gets to a low point, it should have an enhancing effect on memory.”

Researchers believe that the brain uses sleep as a time to consolidate memories and to choose which details to park in a permanent file and which to toss into the mental wastebasket.

This is necessary because the brain has limited storage space, Mahowald says. Just like the hard drive on a computer, the parts of the brain set aside for long-term memory storage can only accommodate so much data.

You can think of sleep as the time when the brain’s graveyard shift comes on line. While the night clerk is filing away memories, the warehouse workers are restocking brain chemicals and the cleaning crew is tidying up the detritus left over from a hard day of thinking.

The new study’s results might prompt more people to take power naps or to think that they might be able to replace the standard eight hours with shorter sporadic periods of slumber.

But those quickie catnaps can’t take the place of a solid night of sleep.

“I suspect that sleep has some unknown primary function other than memory consolidation,” Lahl said. “A regular sleep schedule still plays an important role in overall well-being and health.”









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