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Napping seems like such a simple concept. However, the art of napping is threaded into our history. Believed by some to be superior to a full night of sleep. By others, it appeared to be the art of the lazy – with sleep in general not being far behind. Whether these figures in history believed napping to be beneficial or not, many of us today find it necessary.
Grabbing a few mid-day winks can boost our level of energy and help us stay alert. Though some of our predecessors may have looked down their nose at napping. Maybe it was because it was the one thing they couldn’t master. But, we can help you with that.
“It’s time for your nap” is one of the most common sentences we hear in the first years of our lives. But it’s also a sentence that Thomas Edison’s children probably never heard. Edison is history’s poster boy for minimum sleep. He boasted of needing only three or four hours a night. But he was also known to nap – at least twice a day. He just never encouraged naps for other people. He had sleeping cots sprinkled everywhere he lived or worked, and he was a little vague about the length of time he spent on them.
Edison may not have needed as much sleep as most of us, but “three hours a night” is probably one of those myths that grow up around famous people. Nicola Tesla, another prolific inventor and a contemporary of Edison, also claimed a hard-to-believe sleep schedule – only two hours a night, and no mention of naps.
It happens that Tesla was Edison’s former co-worker as well as his fiercest critic. He even made fun of Edison’s famously faulty hygiene. Did personal rivalry factor into Tesla’s claim that he needed even less sleep than Edison? Very likely, I think. Unfortunately, both men’s sleep claims were cemented into history before the era of investigative reporting. Could have been a good National Enquirer story: “Edison, Tesla, Outed for Sleep Lies!!
Unfortunately for Edison’s young assistants, Mr. Lightbulb forced his own alleged habits on them. In an 1889 Scientific American interview, Edison admitted he coerced his young employees into following his own alleged sleep practice of less than four hours a day.
“At first the boys had some difficulty in keeping awake and would go to sleep under stairways and in corners,” Edison said. “We employed watchers to bring them out, and in time they got used to it.”
Yup, seriously. Like getting “used to” a bread and water diet. And Edison didn’t mellow over time. 24 years later a biographer, John Greusel, wrote that Edison’s assistants were
“expected to keep pace with him. When they fell from sheer exhaustion, he even seemed to begrudge them the brief hours they were sleeping. Under the excessive strain, Edison became a veritable grizzly bear; he had no patience with anyone who wished to quit.”
There is no mention of cots for the assistants. And when he hired those new fellows, he often conducted the interviews at 4am. Sounds like a dream boss, doesn’t he?
Edison encouraged all Americans to follow his lead, claiming that sleeping eight hours a night was a waste and even harmful. He went so far as to say, in 1914, “There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all.” The only excuse for that crazy statement was that Edison was suffering from chronic lack of sleep when he made it. Dale Carnegie, the guru of insincere schmoozing, echoed Edison’s anti-sleep madness: “We don’t even know if we have to sleep at all!” Carnegie wrote.
That silliness was reinforced by Lindbergh’s transatlantic solo flight, which forced him to remain awake for 33 hours. Not that Lindbergh is a very convincing example. If going to sleep meant plunging to our deaths in the icey North Atlantic, I think most of us could stay awake for 33 hours. That doesn’t make it a model for a healthy life.
Regrettably, Edison’s supposed “example” still stood as sleep advice many years after he himself entered The Big Sleep.
Edison and Tesla are not the only famous men (sleep myths are almost always about men) who are cited as short sleepers. Leonardo DaVinci supposedly slept 20 minutes every four hours (scientists call that “polyphasic sleep.”) Uncle CT is not the only one to cry “horse pucky” on the DaVinci claim. Dr Piotr Wozniak, an expert on the history of sleep, doesn’t buy it either.
“Leonardo’s polyphasic sleep is probably an urban myth. I could not locate any credible sources with any notes on his sleep habits, and yet DaVinci is nearly always mentioned whenever the art of napping comes into question. It seems quite strange that someone would come up with a crazy polyphasic schedule idea at the time of leisurely Renaissance life that was well-timed by the superiority of sunlight over candlelight.”
Further doubt comes from DaVinci’s own words:
“As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well used brings happy death“.
Leonardo may have napped, but it sounds like he also enjoyed nights in his bed.
In a summary of his studies on the sleep habits of well-known “geniuses,” including like DaVinci, Napoleon and others, Wozniak says:
“All I could find was rather a standard adherence to a normal monophasic or biphasic sleep, with an exception for numerous all-nighters at the time of the creative high….”
That “creative high” is what accounts for the occasional sleepless exploits like the Lindbergh flight.
Edison managed to shame generations of 19th and 20th Century Americans into less-than-optimum sleep. It’s only in recent years that science has exposed the lunacy of his advice. Most of us do need seven to nine hours of sleep, not three. But Edison was right about the benefits of his naps. They energize us. Recent research shows that daytime naps improve faster learning, emotional stability and efficiency.
For employers, that translates to increased employee productivity and bigger profits. Forward-looking companies, such as Google, Zappos and Ben & Jerry’s, now have napping areas in their headquarters. Unlike grinchy Edison, they encourage employee napping – and not just under company staircases. The biggest surprise benefit is that naps also boost efficiency of employees who do get the recommended amount of nighttime sleep, not just those who are sleep short.
Naps may be better understood if we take a second look at the realities of a “full night’s sleep.” The fact is that few of us, especially those of us over 50, sleep uninterrupted for seven or eight or nine hours. That’s not reality, even though we might believe it to be “ideal.” Most of us awaken, at least once, for a trip to the bathroom, then try to return to sleep.
Until a couple of centuries ago, our ancestors handled those interruptions quite differently. They expected and planned for an hour or two of wakefulness in the middle of the night. Sleep science refers to it as a “biphasic” sleep pattern. The first segment of biphasic sleep ran from an hour or two after sundown to about 1am, followed by an hour or two of wakeful activity.
In addition to bathroom breaks, they socialized, ate, and worked on creating new family numbers. Then they slept again, until dawn. In other words, they took two long, refreshing naps every night.
We don’t know if early man also took short daytime naps, but we do now know that daytime naps are bonuses that can benefit all of us. We’ll examine some of those benefits in a future blog. But first, let’s try to help any of you “nap challenged” folks start a path to healthy napping.
Some lucky people are natural nappers, but for many of us it’s a learned skill But, one that will improve with practice. Here are a few simple guidelines to get you started.
Find a quiet spot. This is especially useful advice for beginners. And if you don’t have a quiet spot, make one! Technology gives us options – noise cancelling headphones or earbuds. You can also try sleep-inducing white noise. A simple fan works for many, otherwise there are inexpensive (20$) white noise generators. (Uncle CT has been using the same model for almost a decade.)
Find a plethora of options or one, great inexpensive sound machine at Amazon.com.
Make yourself comfortable – in a horizontal position. Sleeping in a chair is more difficult and less restful. If there isn’t a bed or a couch nearby, use a cheap foam or inflatable pad. And use a pillow.
If you’ve never tried a weighted blanket look into one too. These aren’t only great for a restful night, but also help sleeping for a short period of time ore effective too. The great thing about weighted blankets is that they help you relax and sleep sounder. Meaning your nap may only be for a short period of time, but you can make the most of it.
Find out more about the benefits of weighted blankets as well as a few of our favorite brands HERE!
Don’t focus on falling asleep! Tell yourself you are just going to lie down for 20 restful minutes, and that falling asleep might be a bonus. Trying to sleep is counter-productive. Also, tell yourself that the 20 minutes of restful inactivity is its own reward. It absolutely is! You’re going to feel better, even if you don’t fall asleep. And you will eventually learn to sleep.
Set an alarm. Easy to do – most of us have phones or watches with alarm functions. Setting an alarm is a way of telling yourself what the next 20 or 30 minutes are about. Sounds foolishly basic, but it helps. And if your alarm sounds after what seems like only two minutes?
Congratulations! You napped!
In future sleep blog entries we’ll consider the long-term benefits of napping, both mental and physical, as well as how to determine your own best nap schedule and duration. Until then, Sleep well!