How to Take the Perfect Nap, According to Cognitive Scientist Sara Mednick

Nap­ping is seri­ous busi­ness, despite the fact that when some of us think of naps, we think about preschool. We’ve been taught to think of naps as some­thing to out­grow. Yet as we age into adult­hood, so many of us find it hard to get enough sleep. Mil­lions cur­rent­ly suf­fer from sleep depri­va­tion, whose effects range from mem­o­ry loss to, well… death, if we cred­it the dire warn­ings of neu­ro­sci­en­tist Matthew Walk­er. “Sleep,” Walk­er says, “is a non-nego­tiable bio­log­i­cal neces­si­ty.”

In light of the lat­est research, nap­ping begins to seem more like urgent pre­ven­tive care than an indul­gence. In fact, sleep expert Sara Med­nick says, naps are a “mir­a­cle drug” that “increas­es alert­ness, boosts cre­ativ­i­ty, reduces stress, improves per­cep­tion, sta­mi­na, motor skills, and accu­ra­cy, enhances your sex life,” helps you lose weight, feel hap­pi­er, and so on, all with­out “dan­ger­ous side effects” and with a cost of noth­ing but time.

If this sounds like hype, con­sid­er the qual­i­ty of the source – Dr. Sara Med­nick, a pro­fes­sor of Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine (UCI) and a fel­low at the Cen­ter for the Neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy of Learn­ing and Mem­o­ry. Med­nick runs a “sev­en-bed­room sleep lab at UCI,” notes her site, that works “lit­er­al­ly around-the-clock to dis­cov­er meth­ods for boost­ing cog­ni­tion through a range of dif­fer­ent inter­ven­tions, includ­ing nap­ping.”

Maybe you’re sold on the ben­e­fits and sim­ple plea­sures of a nap — but maybe it’s been a few years since you’ve sched­uled one. How long, exact­ly, should a grown-up nap last? The ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above, script­ed by Med­nick, answers that ques­tion with a short course on sleep cycles: how we move through dif­fer­ent stages as we snore, reach­ing the deep­est sleep at stage 3 and con­clud­ing a cycle with R.E.M. The length of the nap we take can depend on the kinds of tasks we need to per­form, and whether we need to wake up quick­ly and get on to oth­er things.

Med­nick expands sub­stan­tial­ly on her evi­dence-based advo­ca­cy for naps in her book Take a Nap! Change Your Life. (See her dis­cuss her research on sleep and mem­o­ry in the short video just above.) In the book’s intro­duc­tion, she tells the sto­ry of her “jour­ney from skep­tic to nap advo­cate.” Here, she uses uses a dif­fer­ent metaphor. Naps, she says, are a “secret weapon” — one she reached for just min­utes before she stood up at the Salk Insti­tute to present research on naps. “I nev­er imag­ined,” she writes of her jour­ney into nap­ping, “that a healthy solu­tion to fac­ing life’s mul­ti­ple chal­lenges could be as sim­ple and attain­able as a short nap.” Giv­en how much sleep we’re all los­ing late­ly, maybe it’s not so sur­pris­ing after all.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Sleep or Die: Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Matthew Walk­er Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imper­il Our Health

What Hap­pens To Your Body & Brain If You Don’t Get Sleep? Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Matthew Walk­er Explains

Dr. Weil’s 60-Sec­ond Tech­nique for Falling Asleep

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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