I made a comment in a previous post that sparked a discussion at work. I made the remark that I recommend afternoon naps as a memory aid. Don’t believe me?

I used to think that the secret for good health was actually pretty simple: eat a reasonable and varied diet, exercise, and get a good night’s sleep.

Then I read Sara Mednick’s book Take a Nap! Change Your Life. Now I think the secret to good health is to eat a reasonable and varied diet, exercise, get a good night’s sleep and an afternoon nap. The author, Dr. Sara Mednick, is a research scientist at the Salk institute in La Jolla, California. Her resume is filled with names like Harvard. The book is based on her research and on the research of scientists she collaborates with. In the book, Dr. Mednick points out that nearly all mammals nap. The fact that people in the United States don’t nap is driven by culture, not biology. Your body wants to nap. Your brain wants to nap.

I have spent a few years since reading this book working naps into my regular routine. I now swear by naps. Everyone should nap.

Particulalry interesting for people trying to improve their memory is the fact that sleep plays a critical role in memory formation, particularly in something called “slow wave sleep”. The amount of slow wave sleep you get is governed by the time of day you nap and the time you woke up in the morning.

The best part of the book is the front cover. It includes a “nap calculator” consisting of a colored dial. By selecting the time of day that you wake up, the dial can help you select the ideal nap for the kind of benefits you want. REM sleep is associated with improving creativity and perception. Stage 2 sleep is associated with improving alertness and getting rid of the tired feeling, called “sleep pressure”. Slow wave sleep is associated with improving memory and clearing the mind. The amount of each kind of sleep will vary based on the time of day and when you woke up that morning. The nap calculator on the front cover helps you pick the right time of day to nap to get the benefits you want.

Although the time from about 1:30pm to 3:00pm may be the most balanced time of day to nap, a late afternoon nap can really boost memory. I have personal experience with that. I tend to be a late riser. On weekdays, I generally get up at about 8:00am and get to work by 9:00am. I have had a lot of success with a program of napping for an hour as soon as I get home from work, often at about 7:00pm. I get up largely refreshed and “detoxed” from the stress of the workday, and get in a few quality hours of home time before I go to bed at midnight or 1:00am.

When I nap on a program like that, it seems to help my memory considerably. I’m less likely to forget the important details of the day, like meetings I promised to set up or where I left a particular book or my car keys. When I don’t get in a nap, my brain feels slightly foggier and I struggle more to get through the day.

On weekends, I like to nap in the mid afternoon, often for only half an hour or so. Ideally I would nap in the early afternoon every day, but employers tend to frown upon such radical notions. Oh well.

Sara Mednick’s book is one of my all time favorites, mostly because of the concepts and the nap calculator on the cover. The book itself is a solid but brief discussion of the science of sleep and naps written for the lay person. Towards the end, parts of the book can seem like filler material, but I don’t feel it detracts overly much. The content is interesting and practical which more than makes up for any tediousness towards the end.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially to anyone interested in getting the most out their memory. You should buy at least two copies.