To every nap lover’s delight, it turns out that sleeping may play a larger role in learning than previously thought, according to a new study featured in the journal Current Biology.
Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley studied 44 college-aged participants at two different times of day — once at noon and again at 6 p.m. Half the group was allowed to take a nap from 2 p.m. to 3:40 p.m., while the rest stayed awake throughout the day.
At noon and 6 p.m., researchers measured how both groups performed in facial memory tests, finger tapping memory tests and an alertness test.
The “Nap” group performed significantly better at learning tasks when tested later in the day in comparison to subjects who did not take a lengthy nap.
The team also measured brain activity while subjects napped using an electroencephalogram. They found that success in learning correlated with the amount of stage-2 non rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, the stage preceding deep rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
The research is unique because it points to a mechanism that may reveal sleep’s importance for encoding new information — sleep spindles, or short bursts of cell activity between areas of the brain during NREM.
But getting a few more minutes of shuteye to boost learning might not be the only help. Instead, maximizing sleep overnight seems to have the strongest effect on encoding new information.
“A lot of that spindle-rich sleep is occurring the second half of the night, so if you sleep six hours or less, you are shortchanging yourself,” said lead author Bryce Mander in a UC-Berkeley press release. “You will have fewer spindles, and you might not be able to learn as much.”
Although the findings suggest that snoozing enhances learning, researchers still do not know what causes humans to sleep. It’s also likely scientists will need to conduct more research to unveil why the brain depends on the activity.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to cave in next time you’re tempted by a nap or resist future urges to pull all-nighters.