The modern world killed off the nap

A tribute to the soft pleasures of dozing, backed up by hard science

Toronto Star
29 October 2006
By Kurt Kleiner

I love to nap. When after-lunch grogginess hits and my eyelids start to droop, nothing makes me happier than finding a comfortable spot and drifting off to sleep for half an hour.

But to my wife, my napping is the sign of a basic character flaw.

"You're napping again? I can't believe how lazy you are!"

She's not alone. To be an enthusiastic napper in 21st-century North America is to be out of step with your time and place. In most of the industrialized world, a nap is seen as a sign of weakness, either physical or moral.

The very young and the very old nap. Sick people nap. Bums nap. Healthy, productive adults do not nap.

We are a culture that celebrates action, doing, achieving, an attitude that leads to a disdain for sleep in general. We stay up late and get up early. We pull all-nighters. We'll sleep when we're dead, and in the meantime there's always a Starbucks on the corner.

It's a misguided attitude. A good nap is one of life's great pleasures, and the ability to nap is the sign of a well-balanced life. When we nap we snatch back control of our day from a mechanized, clock-driven society. We set aside the urgency imposed on us by the external world and get in touch with an internal rhythm that is millions of years old.

A nap distils the sweetness of a whole night's sleep down to a few minutes. Ideally, it starts on a soft bed, in a dark room, with a warm blanket. At first your mind lingers on what you've done that day, and what you still need to do. Then your thoughts start to unravel a little, become less coherent, more dreamlike. You feel your breathing deepen, your body relax. You lose yourself; you're asleep. After a few minutes you gradually become aware again of the bed, the room. You open your eyes, gather your thoughts, throw off the blankets. You're a new person.

There's no shortage of important historical nappers, many of them men of industry and action. Napoleon Bonaparte, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, and Winston Churchill were nappers in the heroic vein.

On the literary side, Samuel Pepys, the 17th-century diarist, would sometimes have a nap in his office after a boozy lunch. The world's most famous insomniac, Marcel Proust's alter-ego in In Search of Lost Time, slept poorly at night but always managed to have a little nap before dinner.

Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century French essayist, says nothing about his personal napping preferences, but he writes so admiringly of ancient generals who napped before their battles (and sometimes even during) that I'm sure I detect a fellow napper.

As a species, we seem designed to nap. Sleep researchers have long known that our natural circadian rhythms show two distinct dips in energy and alertness. The major dip starts in the late evening, helping us get ready for a good night's sleep.

But there's another significant dip in the early afternoon that, in a saner world, would have us all dropping off. From an evolutionary point of view, this pattern makes some sense — our ancestors evolved in the tropics, where a desire to sleep during the hottest part of the day probably helped ensure survival.

Sleep researcher Claudio Stampi, founder of the Chronobiology Research Institute in Boston, thinks the tendency to nap might have an even deeper meaning. It could be the remnant of ancient "polyphasic sleep" — a sleep pattern with no long nighttime sleep but lots of short naps throughout the day and night. Many animals sleep this way, as well as newborn babies. If Stampi is right, there was a time when our pre-human ancestors slept only in naps.

Still, by the time we were fully human, about 100,000 years ago, we had probably settled into getting our sleep in two major chunks: the big one at night, with a smaller chunk during the day. Modern hunter-gatherers, whose lifestyle is closest to that of early humans, tend to be big on afternoon snoozing.

The practice of napping continued through the human shift to agriculture. A late 16th-century painting by Flemish painter Abel Grimmer depicts a tired peasant snoozing on a haystack.

This daytime siesta became institutionalized in Spain and Latin American countries, with workers closing up shop and going home for a big meal and a nap before heading back to work for a few more hours. However, modern pressures seem to be gradually eliminating the siesta, at least in cities.

In fact, modernity and industrialization seem to have killed the nap for most of us. We no longer toil in the fields, or at home, or in a small shop. Instead, most of us head to offices, stores and factories where our employers purchase our labour by the hour. Understandably, they would rather not pay us for sleeping.

But sleep experts say a lot of us really could use that nap. James B. Maas, the Cornell University sleep expert, says most people don't get enough sleep and that an afternoon nap can help. In fact, Maas coined the term "power nap" to emphasize that a nap can make a person more productive and energetic.

Many studies have shown that napping improves mood and performance.

This year, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, reported that they took test subjects who had had only five hours of sleep the night before and let them have naps of varying durations.

They found that even a 10-minute nap made the subjects feel less sleepy and more vigorous, and led to improved cognitive performance.

Nevertheless, mainstream sleep researchers are only grudging boosters of the nap. They tend to see it as second-best, necessary only for people who haven't gotten enough sleep the night before.

"A nap can rejuvenate you to get through the rest of the day," Maas says. "But we'd much rather have people with good nocturnal sleep, so they would not need to take a nap."

Sara C. Mednick, a psychologist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., has gone a step further. She says that naps can help even people who get plenty of nighttime sleep. In the lab, she took well-rested subjects and tested them with and without naps. She found that those who napped did better on various tests of cognitive performance than those who did not.

"Many famous, successful people have been using this as their secret tool," Mednick says. "What I've always found is that the CEO is usually the one who's allowed to nap. It's a huge leap, I think, for bosses to consider letting employees do the same thing that they do to be productive."

Those same bosses won't blink when an employee heads out to grab a cup of coffee to perk up — even though Mednick has found that coffee actually has a slight negative effect on cognitive ability.

Mednick, whose book Take a Nap! Change Your Life is coming out in December, says her research has converted her into a devout napper.

"I'm always amazed at how well I feel after I nap," she says. "It's a real gift."

In New York City it's a gift you may have to pay for. A company there called MetroNaps sells naps at $14 (U.S.) for 20 minutes. You go into one of their two locations and get into a nap "pod," a fancy reclining chair with a dome over it that blocks out light. Then you put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and snooze. (MetroNaps also has a location in Vancouver International Airport.)

Like Mednick, MetroNaps sells naps as a productivity-enhancing experience for office workers, one that will send you back to your high-powered job with a better attitude and a better ability to get the job done.

If that's what it takes to pry a little room out of the day for more napping, I'm all for it. But for me, the productivity enhancement is almost beside the point. It's as if someone were arguing that I should eat lunch so that I could work harder.

In fact, the emphasis on productivity threatens to rob the nap of one of its pleasurable qualities — its illicitness. In an anti-sleep culture, taking a nap lets you feel that you've stolen a little piece of the day just for yourself.

Whether you're in your bed, on the couch, or under your desk, a nap is a chance to forget about the clock and tune into your own internal rhythms. When I nap, I accept my own nature, and the nature of the universe that made me. I become a Zen master of sleep.

Unless my wife is right. It could be that I'm just lazy.

Kurt Kleiner is a freelance writer. He naps in Toronto.