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A Guide to Finals: The Science of Napping

Okay, here we go. It’s 10 p.m. on Monday night and you’re looking down at your mapped-out finals week schedule, complete with glittered headings and scented stickers. You’ve planned every minute of every day for the rest of this week, allowing time only for what’s necessary. No time for food, no time for showering, no time for looking cute. You’ve barely even squeezed in time to brush your teeth before heading off to your final. But you realize you’ve forgottten to budget time for sleep.

Your whole plan is ruined. You can’t do it; everything is falling apart.

But wait! You recall from a psychology class in high school that your brain can still operate with minimal sleep on something called REM sleep. What was that again? Oh, here it is.

Sleep tight!

What is sleep?

When it comes to sleeping, there are two important stages: non-REM sleep and REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep. During the stages of non-REM sleep, your body repairs itself and regenerates tissues, building up its immune system. During REM sleep, on the other hand, your brain increases in activity and is able to store memories and create new associative networks for creativity. This is when you experience dreams.

Types of naps

The 10- or 20-minute nap

Perfect for those who need to get back to work in a jiffy, this short nap gives a quick boost of alertness and energy by limiting your body to the lighter stages of non-REM sleep. However, research has shown that the 10-minute nap beats any other short nap because the body doesn’t experience the groggy feeling immediately after waking. If you find yourself dreaming during a short nap, it is likely that you are sleep-deprived and should instead get a full night’s sleep.

The 30-minute nap

Actually a very inefficient type of nap, 30 minutes doesn’t allow your body the full restorative effects of a 60-minute nap and will often leave you with sleep inertia: basically, a hangover-like groggy feeling that doesn’t go away for another 30 minutes after waking.

The 60-minute nap

Slow-wave sleep is necessary if you’re looking to actually remember facts, places and faces, and that only happens when you allow your body to rest for about an hour. This kind of nap allows for cognitive memory processing, but the downside is that you might experience some grogginess when waking up.

The full 90-minute nap

Allowing the body to complete a full cycle of sleep, including REM sleep, this nap leads to an improvement in emotional and procedural memory and creativity, all without the side effects of sleep inertia.

The “I’m only going to close my eyes” nap aka the oversleeping nap

It happens to the best of us, so don’t fret. But if you wake up in a panic three hours after your alarm has been going off (and your roommate now hates you), the best thing to do is probably just to go back to sleep if you have the time. Most healthy adults require an average of seven and a half to nine hours of sleep per night in order to function at their best. You might lose some crucial study time, but you’ll feel more energetic, and your body will thank you for it.

If only I were that cute when drifting off to sleep. Instead, I look like this:

Where to nap

In order to avoid a deep sleep, it’s best to sit slightly upright when napping. Try napping in a parked car, under a desk, lying on a couch, etc. This part is common sense. If you’re only looking for a quick nap, don’t throw on your PJs and cuddle in the comfort of your own warm, cozy bed.

The best time to nap

Any time! Well,  not really.

According to studies, the ideal time to nap is anywhere between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. because napping later in the day can interfere with your regular sleeping schedule at night. However, this also depends on what time you wake up and go to bed, so aim for the middle of your day.

Tips to waking up after naps

One student-friendly idea for those looking to take short 10-minute naps is to hold a pencil or pen in your hand while sleeping upright on a chair or couch. After about 10 minutes, your body will try to fall deeper into sleep, and you’ll most likely drop your pencil as an effect, waking you up in the process.

If you’re a coffee lover, another trick to a wake-up is to drink a cup of coffee before napping. The coffee won’t stop you from a short nap and, by the time it kicks in, will help lessen the effect of sleep inertia when waking up.

Hooray for sleep.


Wall Street Journal

National Sleep Foundation

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