This Is the Best Time of Day to Nap for a Better Memory, Says a Neuroscientist
Experts say an afternoon siesta can may give you a brain boost to help you better retain and process information.
We’re all familiar with the groggy out-of-it feeling that can linger after sneaking in a quick nap. It can almost be enough to make you wish you’d just reached for a second cup of coffee to get through the day, instead. Don’t let a little momentary discombobulation be a deterrent, though; research actually indicates that napping can power up your brain so it processes and retains information better, leaving you even sharper than were before you snoozed.
So how much midday sleep do you need for that memory boost—and when is the ideal time to nap for your brain?
Are naps good or bad for your brain?
First, it’s hard to say if naps are “good” or “bad” for your health overall. That depends on the individual and any existing medical issues. If you’re looking to boost memory, though, research shows a short nap does seem to help.
A 2021 review of 11 studies which followed adults between the ages of 20 and 73 found that a short, daytime nap generally improved their cognitive performance—that is, executive function, memory and alertness. Researchers found that the positive cognitive effects of a nap can last for at least two hours post-snooze.
“Naps are for everyone but they can especially help older adults who are not sleeping well at night,” Sara Mednick, PhD, a professor of cognitive sciences at University of California Irvine, adds.
“Studies show significant benefits of naps for executive functioning and long term memory in older adults,” she says.
How long should I nap, and when?
Experts seem to agree that naps need time limits. Some people do well with a 20- to 30-minute nap—or a “power nap,” which the Cleveland Clinic says can improve mood, alertness, reaction time, short-term memory, focus and concentration.
If you need a little more sleep to get through your day, though, the Cleveland Clinic says a 60-90 minute nap can also boost memory and creativity.
Research published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory in 2012 supports this, indicating that a 60-minute nap allows for slow-wave sleep, which plays a key role in “growth, memory and immune function,” according to the Sleep Foundation.
In one 2015 study published in the same journal, a researcher gave people a list of words to remember, and then let half of them sleep for 90 minutes while the other half watched DVDs. When asked to recall the words, the nappers got more correct.
So depending on your needs, Dr. Mednick advises either taking a short 30-minute nap, or a 60- to 90-minute nap. She suggests keeping naps regular so your body knows to expect it—and so you fall asleep easier for the nap, Dr. Mednick says.
“For the best time to nap, I’d recommend six to seven hours after wake up time,” Dr. Mednick suggests, “which is usually 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.”
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