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Naps May Improve Performance Later In The Day

Looking for an excuse to work in a quick snooze in the afternoon?

Here you go: Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have found that naps may help your brain work better later.

Matthew Walker, who led the study, says we know that sleeping is critical to cementing new memories, but this research looked at whether getting sleep before learning is equally important to prepare your brain to soak up information.


"Despite us all knowing the sort of subjective benefits of sleep, what may be surprising to the general public is that scientists and doctors do not still have a satisfying answer as to why we sleep — and that, of course, is one-third of our lives," Walker tells NPR's Guy Raz.

The Science Behind The Study

When we initially learn something, it's collected in the hippocampus, which is a short-term reservoir in the brain. For that memory to survive, it needs to live in the brain's long-term memory, or the cortex.

Walker's group hypothesized that while we sleep, information is shifted from one location to another, and the change in the geography of information could improve learning afterward.

In the study, researchers took two groups of healthy young adults. Each group completed two learning sessions. The difference was that between the first and second sessions, one group got to take a 90-minute nap. Members of the group that got the nap improved in their ability to learn by 10 percent, while the non-napping group did 10 percent worse.


What It Means

Walker says one real-world application for his study is to emphasize the value of sleep to a population always on the go.

"At some point, we as adults just stop ourselves sort of thinking there's a benefit of sleep. And instead, which is even worse, we start to associate sufficient sleep with laziness," Walker says.

If you're tempted to see it that way, he suggests thinking about it in the context of children.

"You would never look at a child who is sleeping significant amounts and think, 'Well, what a lazy infant.' "

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