Power nap key to healthy brain say scientists

Face off: Famous insomniacs (left) versus celebrated snoozers (right).

Is sleep the secret of success? A new study by Chinese scientists shows that napping could be the key to a healthy brain. But some still insist sleep is nothing more than a waste of time.

The year is 1637. At their home in London, a family watches as the sky begins to darken. The day is drawing to a close.

As the last rays of light illuminate the room, the children race to finish their night-time routine. First, they share a warm mug of almond milk and rosewater. Then they help each other attach a small bag of aniseed to their nostrils. Finally, they tie slices of bread, carefully soaked in vinegar, to the soles of their feet.

Routine finished, the children squelch to bed triumphantly. They know they will have a good night’s rest.

Today, most people’s bedtime routines no longer involve vinegar slippers, but many still swear that sleep is the key to a happy and healthy life.

Most scientists agree. Just last month, researchers in China concluded that taking regular naps can improve your mental agility and even help prevent dementia.

The new study is just the latest in a series of stunning reports by sleep scientists. According to academics, napping can boost brain power, enhance problem-solving, make adults less irritated, toddlers more joyful.

Scientists today may be on the same page, but the work of historians shows that attitudes to sleep varied hugely throughout the centuries.

One of the biggest names in the history of sleep is A Roger Ekirch. For 16 years, he studied court records, diaries, medical books and even Homer’s Odyssey to build a picture of how past humans slept.

His conclusions were astounding. In the past, Europeans slept in two distinct phases – a “first sleep” just after dark, followed by several hours of reading, praying or visiting neighbours before a “second sleep” until morning. In the winter, some people spent up to 14 hours in bed each day.

Today, waking up at midnight to visit your neighbours would widely be regarded as a sign of insomnia. So what has changed?

In the late 17th Century, references to first and second sleep began to disappear. As street lights improved and the industrial revolution took hold, people began to work longer days. Soon, slumber became a sign of laziness.

Indeed, when Napoleon was asked how many hours of sleep people need, he replied: “six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.”

It is a mantra that many politicians have taken to heart. “Sleep is for wimps,” declared former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who slept for just four hours a night. Donald Trump says he needs even less sleep – three hours – to stay ahead of his rivals.

Many brilliant scientists are even more extreme. Sir Isaac Newton worked for an astonishing 22 hours every day. On the other end of the spectrum, Albert Einstein dozed for 10 hours each night – 11 if he was working especially hard.

Others take an unusual approach to sleep. Charles Dickens travelled with a compass so he could always rest facing north. And for singer Mariah Carey, going on holiday must be even more of a challenge: she requires 20 humidifiers to get her 15 hours of nightly sleep.

So, is sleep the secret of success?

Wake up call

Of course, say some. The science is clear. People who sleep a lot are happier, healthier and even make more money. Margaret Thatcher was a successful politician despite the fact she had only four hours of sleep every night, not because of it. Without enough sleep, it is impossible to function – sleep deprivation is even considered a form of torture.

Snoozing is losing, say others. Sleep is overrated. It may be a useful tool for preventing dementia, but bodily health does not equal a successful life. The Dalai Lama may like to sleep for nine hours every night, but plenty of brilliant and powerful people swear by just a few hours of rest. As Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, people who say they need eight hours should learn to “sleep faster”.

You Decide

  1. How many hours do you sleep every night?
  2. Should we return to sleeping in two phases?

Activities

  1. Write a short story about a world in which nobody ever needs to sleep. How would life be different?
  2. Hold a class debate on the motion: “Schools should start later so pupils can sleep more.”

Some People Say...

“Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.”

Thomas Edison (1847 - 1931), American inventor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed by scientists and doctors that healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep every night, while younger children and teenagers need even more rest. Despite this, research by the Royal Society for Public Health in 2016 found that the average Briton sleeps for only 6.8 hours each night. The most sleep-deprived country in the world is Japan, with an average night’s sleep of just under six hours.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether we should return to segmented sleeping, previously known as having a “first sleep” and a “second sleep.” In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which he left a group of people in darkness for 14 hours a day for a month. Eventually, they started sleeping in a two phase pattern. Some say this experiment is a sign that people should return to segmented sleeping; others say it would be disruptive and impractical.

Word Watch

Night-time routine
These tips for how to sleep are found in a handbook written by English physician Tobias Venner in 1637.
Aniseed
A substance made from the seeds of the anise plant. It is used in cooking and herbal medicine, is used to make liquorice and is known for its energising effect on dogs.
Regular naps
The scientists’ report found that over-60s who take naps of even just five minutes have better memories, locational awareness and even verbal skills than those who stay awake all day.
Dementia
A syndrome common amongst elderly people. Symptoms include the loss of memory, language, thinking and problem-solving abilities. Nearly 10 million people are diagnosed each year worldwide.
Homer’s Odyssey
An epic Greek poem that tells the story of Odysseus’ journey home to the island of Ithica from the Trojan war.
Napoleon
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military leader and emperor who conquered large parts of Europe in the early 19th Century.
Sir Isaac Newton
The English mathematician and scientist who is best known for his theory of gravity. His lack of sleep eventually led to exhaustion, and was said to be a contributing factor in his nervous breakdown.
Albert Einstein
The brilliant mathematician is also known for his eccentricities. He ate grasshoppers from the ground and also had a passionate hatred of socks.
Charles Dickens
Dickens referenced “first sleep” in his novel Barnaby Rudge, which was published in 1840. He believed sleeping facing north improved his creativity.
More money
One US study found that workers who live in locations where people get more sleep tend to earn more money than those who live in sleep deprived neighbourhoods.
Arnold Schwarzenegger
The Austrian-American actor and bodybuilder was elected as the Governor of California from 2003 to 2011. He says sleeping six hours a day gives him 18 hours left to do things.

Subjects

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