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Trump Is Waging A War On Napping. Here’s The Science Of Why He’s Wrong.

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Donald Trump is waging a subtle war on napping.

Early in this election, he branded Jeb Bush “low energy.” He redeployed the insult against his new arch-foe, Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“She’s low energy. She actually is low energy,” Trump said at a campaign stop in Virginia on Monday, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. “She’ll go home, she’ll take a nap for four or five hours and then she’ll come back. No naps for Trump! I don’t nap. We don’t have time. We don’t have time.”

In December, he accused Clinton of going “to sleep” during her absences from the campaign trail, charging her with lacking “stamina.” And on Monday, he used the same insult against Bernie Sanders, accusing him of just wanting to go home and sleep.

Trump’s criticisms reflect a gut-level suspicion of sleep. Sleep, at the surface, seems like a colossal waste of time, especially in a culture where we’re urged to strive towards first, to work harder, to go faster, to not only keep up with but beat the Jones’. Cutting back on sleep leaves more time for everything else, so sleeping is really just a sign of laziness, right? That’s what Trump is implying. He’s wrong.

Let Sleeping Brains Lie

The very fact that sleep seems so useless points to its inherent biological function. From an evolutionary perspective, sleep would have been a big risk to early man.

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“Sleep is such a dangerous thing to do, when you’re out in the wild,” Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a biologist who researches sleep function at the University of Rochester medical school, told psychologist and writer Maria Konnikova, who’s written a series of articles about sleep. “It has to have a basic evolutional function. Otherwise it would have been eliminated.”

A good night’s sleep isn’t a luxury, it’s absolutely essential to both mental and physical health. Even small, systemic sleep deficits lead to daily effects on waking performance. According to Dr. Josna Adusumilli, a Harvard neurologist, 12 days of six hours of sleep a night is equivalent to 24 hours without sleep. After 24 hours awake, people act about the same as if they have a blood alcohol content of 0.1 percent. The legal limit for driving is 0.08 percent.

People who are sleep deprived perform worse at motor tasks (say, basketball or operating machinery) and have less control over their emotions: Sleep deprivation has been shown to lead to a degradation of the link between the amygdala, which sparks emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, which governs them, along with other executive decision-making. The sleep deprived perform worse at learning, memory, and creative and analytic reasoning, and are more likely to make mistakes and bad decisions. Physically, lack of quality sleep leads to higher instances of depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cognitive impairments. The CDC classifies insufficient sleep as a serious public health problem.

The latest research also suggests that sleep is essential to basic brain health. According to groundbreaking research by Nedergaard, sleep is when our brains flush out neurotoxins accumulated during normal metabolic practices. While we sleep, channels in the brain expand to flush the brain with cerebrospinal fluid, sweeping out this neural trash. Sleep deprivation leaves our brains without the time to do its housekeeping, leading over the years to a buildup of neurotoxins linked to dementia.

What’s In A Nap?

Even after a full night’s sleep, which many Americans don’t get, our brains get tired and less effective as the day goes on, whether from a buildup of toxins or just mental fatigue. Naps, which can pack sleep’s benefits into a short period of time, can counteract that, like rebooting a computer or giving your phone a mini-charge midday.

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In fact, naps have been a tested tool of many leaders — including Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Eighty-five percent of mammals nap, and according to Dr. Sara Mednick, a psychologist at University of California, Riverside and author of Take a nap! Change Your Life., naps are essential to a large portion of the human population too.

“These people — and they probably account for about 40 percent of the population — tend to do really poorly if they don’t nap,” she told TIME.

A multitude of studies show that napping boosts mood, reduces stress and increases alertness. NASA found that pilots who take 40 minute naps are more alert compared to pilots don’t, and shift workers who can squeeze in 20 minutes perform significantly better on vigilance and motor tasks.

Napping also boosts creativity and insight. In a 2012 study, neuroscientists at Georgetown University found a significant increase in right-brain activity in participants taking a power-nap. The results were particularly significant because in right-handed people, which are the majority of the population and were the majority of the test-group, the left hemisphere normally has more activity. While the division of labor between the right brain and left brain is more complicated than originally supposed, researchers think the right brain is generally more involved in creative activities like visualization and big-picture ideas. In another study, participants who slept a full 8 hours after learning a complex math problem were more than twice as likely to intuit an abstract rule that made solving the problem much easier.

Naps supercharge analytic learning and memory. When we sleep, our brains sift through the experiences we have during the day and process them, integrating them into our existing memory networks and preserving them. When we sleep during the day — maybe after a difficult lesson or policy briefing — it gives our brains a chance to move those memories out of temporary holding and into more robust memory, both clearing the way for new experiences and preserving the important information.

That means we end up smarter if we nap a little after intense learning sessions. In one study, published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, researchers had participants memorize pairs of unrelated words, then take break, during which one group watched a DVD and the other took a nap. When retested, participants who took a nap were about five times better at the memory task than those who watched the DVD. Other research shows that musicians perform new tunes significantly more accurately after a bit of shut-eye. Data from brain activity measurements shows that while they sleep, their motor-cortex, the part of the brain that governs muscle movement, is rife with activity.

Napping 101

Exactly what your nap does for you, however, depends on how long it lasts, and thus what stage of the sleep cycle you dip into.

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A 10–20 minute power nap is enough time for a quick recharge of motor skills and attention in non-rapid-eye-movement, or NREM, which is the lightest stage of sleep. It’s also the easiest to wake from, leaving you with the least sleep inertia — the groggy feeling immediately post wake-up.

A 60-minute nap will reap you some slow-wave sleep, which is beneficial for consolidating memories of facts and figures, but which is also the deepest type of sleep — meaning that you’ll be groggy for a few minutes upon waking. Ninety minutes is the napping gold-standard: long enough for an entire cycle of sleep to go by, thus earning you both some slow-wave-sleep and some REM sleep. Researchers point to REM as the crucial time for forming new memory connections and replenishing problem solving and creative thinking. As a bonus, after 90 minutes you’ll have cycled back into lighter sleep, leading to a less jarring wake-up.

Altogether, rather than Trumping productivity, naps make us more alert, attentive, and creative, better at decisions and at controlling our emotions. Regardless of Clinton or Sanders’ actual napping habits, those certainly sound like desirable presidential qualities, and can benefit almost anyone — which is why companies from Deloitte to Google have started to harness the power of the sleeping on the job. Done right, a nap might be just what you need.