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Nobody would lose with a little snooze

March 14, 2007|Louisa Thomas | LOUISA THOMAS is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.

MOST DAYS, about 2:30 in the afternoon, I feel myself lagging. My head becomes a little thicker, my reflexes a little slower. I need a nap.

Studies showing that naps improve cognition and response time have been coming out for decades. The most recent, released last month, found that individuals who took half-hour naps at least three times a week had a 37% lower risk of death from heart disease.

Five years ago I participated in a study, led by research scientist Sara Mednick, to test whether taking a nap would affect the speed and accuracy with which subjects detected changes in a computer-generated image. The study found that those who stayed awake performed worse over the course of the day, while those (myself included) who took a 30-minute snooze in the middle of the day managed to maintain their speed and accuracy. And those who slept for an hour became faster and more accurate as the day wore on. For me, the benefits of napping aren't hypothetical, they're experimentally tested.

Armed with this evidence, you'd think I'd take more naps. But I don't. I can't shake the sense that napping is slothful and decadent, for the lazy and weak. In a society that places a premium on the appearance of productivity -- even at the cost of actual productivity -- just the impression of wasted time is enough to damn the practice. But it is well established that humans experience a lull around midafternoon, when the homeostatic pressure to sleep briefly overwhelms the circadian signal to remain awake.

Napping has been common practice for most of history, in many cultures -- not just in Spain and Latin America, where businesses famously shut down in the hours after lunch. According to Mednick's new book, "Take a Nap! Change Your Life," ancient Roman, Christian, Jewish and Arabic mythologies featured demons roaming the Earth during midday, terrorizing those who weren't safely tucked in bed. One such demon, Poludnica, wandered over the (notably chilly) Slavic regions, carrying shears to signify death.

But the American-style 9-to-5 workday and anti-nap ethos are becoming the norm around the world. More and more businesses in China, where the workday typically began at 8 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m., with a break after lunch for a snooze, are implementing the 9-to-5 schedule. The Spanish government eliminated the siesta for civil servants in 2005 and has launched a campaign to reform the workday and end the siesta for all. The siesta is "not rational, it's not efficient and it does not pay in terms of family life," Pasqual Maragall, former president of Catalonia, said last year. In Mexico, former President Ernesto Zedillo ended the nap for government workers in 1999.

This move away from traditional napping is mostly because of the need for standardized business hours in a global economy, the increasing availability of air-conditioning in hot climates and the difficulty of sneaking home for a catnap in a commuter culture. But it also can be traced to the particularly American brand of Puritanism the United States has exported, along with Coca-Cola and Levi's, that celebrates the appearance of self-denial.

Naps are good, but they look bad -- and so they are, at best, a guilty pleasure. (The only country bucking this trend is France, where there's nothing guilty about pleasure and where the health minister recently announced that the government would study the effects of afternoon naps.)

Perhaps the key to making napping more palatable is to treat it less like a basic human necessity, dictated by sleepiness and common sense, and more like science, subject to dissection, analysis and implementation. If napping becomes more complicated and more costly -- if it feels more like work -- maybe we'll finally do it.

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