Science & Speculation: On Sleeping During the Day

The joy of a good nap cannot be outdone. I woke from one this afternoon feeling keenly aware that I haven’t napped since I traded two or three part-time gigs for my shiny new full time job. This is bliss denied me by the Nine to Five Anti-Nap Pro-Productivity Brigade. grr!

…Actually, I’m sure my workplace would allow me to get forty or so winks during a long lunch if I came in earlier or left work later, so it’s 100% my own urge toward nine to five industry that robs me of a decadent mid-afternoon siesta. In the 50’s there was the “nap and nip” for businessmen — a doze after lunch, followed by a highball before dinner. Today, I ride out the afternoon blahs with a strong cup of coffee.

For me, a nap involves dozing off on a couch in a sunny room with the window open. I require some kind of natural white noise to sleep mid-day — a fan won’t work, I can tell that a recording of whale sounds isn’t an actual whale in my bedroom, so it’s just distracting. I can only nap really well in our living room, the sunniest room in the house. The open window means breeze, and the rhythmic knocking of the shade against the frame. It means kids on the playground at the end of the block playing basketball during recess, groans of defeat, squeals of joy, and the teacher’s whistle to usher them back to class. Birds squawk, planes whoosh overhead, car chassis clunk over the too-high speed bumps. A nap divides the day, and when I take one, I feel more productive, energetic, and happy in the hours I am awake. My ideal day would involve rising at 7:00 am, napping at 2:00 pm, staying up ’til 11:00 pm (for work and/or play): that’s nine hours of sleep, with the other fifteen split into manageable chunks of seven and eight hours, respectively.

In Sleep Thieves, scientist Stanley Coren reports on an experiment illustrating how people sleep when they’re left to do so whenever they feel like it. Once acclimated to this kind of sleep-when-you-feel-sleepy lifestyle, untethered from the manufactured rhythms of the workday, most subjects started taking 1-2 hour naps every day. Check out the list of more recent studies on napping in the footnote. Summed up, their results indicate that a lack of sleep causes premature aging, decreased memory function, delayed motor function and reaction times, and other generally negative results. The studies suggest that daytime sleep, in particular, contributes to sustained long-term learning, relaxation and alertness, and promotion of “attentional stability”. Humans’ circadian clocks would have us falling asleep between 1 and 4 am, and again between 1 and 4 pm. Hence, the necessity of that coffee bump after lunch.

As an aside, I would like to point out that it was the Victorians who gave us day beds — and what seemed to be the deliciously debauched concept (for the UK/US middle class) of sleeping during the day — in accordance with the Victorian cult of domesticity, an interior space curtained off from intrusion. The day bed meant that naps were secret, furtive, but also important enough that there was a class of furniture made just to accommodate them.

“On Lying in Bed”, GK Chesterton

“If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals… The tone now commonly taken toward the practice of lying in bed is hypocritical and unhealthy…For those who study the great art of lying in bed there is one emphatic caution to be added. …if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all.”

One famous napper once said, “You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination.” If Winston Churchill approves, I guess I’m in.

Research on Napping:

Dynamics of nap sleep during a 40-hour period

Fighting sleep at night: brain correlates and vulnerability to sleep loss

A nap to recap, or, how reward regulates hippocampal-prefrontal memory networks during daytime sleep in humans

Sleep level prediction for daytime short nap based on auto-regressive moving average model

Nap sleep preserves associative but not item memory performance

Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function

And an article on Coren’s research:

Sleep deprivation, psychosis, and mental efficiency

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