If you sometimes feel like you need a quick mental boost before you can process information or make a decision — and who doesn’t — science has found a simple practice that may help.
According to new research out of the University of Bristol in the U.K., a short period of sleep helps a person better weigh the pros and cons involved in a difficult decision, proving the adage to “sleep on it” is in fact very wise advice.
The goals of the study were to determine if a nap enhances the processing of unconscious information and, if so, to explore how the benefit might affect behavior. Results revealed that even during a short sleep session, the brain processes information of which we aren’t consciously aware.
Earlier research shows sleep fosters problem-solving, which manifests in better cognition upon waking. However, it hasn’t clarified if some form of conscious mental activity is needed either prior to or during sleep to experience the benefit.
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Naps Helped Process Subconscious Information
In the current study, scientists prevented information from being consciously perceived by masking it, a technique called a “masked prime task.”
Nonetheless, the information was perceived subliminally, and the degree to which it influenced responses to consciously perceived information was assessed.
The participants, 16 healthy adults, performed two tasks, the masked prime task and a control task that involved responding when a red or blue square appeared on a screen. They practiced the tasks and then either took a 90-minute nap or stayed awake before performing the tasks again.
Researchers used an EEG, which records electrical activity in the brain, to note any changes in brain activity before and after the nap. In addition, they measured reaction times.
Data analysis showed taking a nap boosted processing speed in the masked prime task but not in the control task, which indicates that sleep improved the processing of subconsciously presented material.
Therefore, the researchers concluded that even a short nap might boost response time and the ability to process information. While earlier studies show memory is reinforced during sleep, the new study suggests information acquired during wakefulness is processed in a deeper way during sleep. The advantage might lead to better decision making.
“The findings are remarkable in that they can occur in the absence of initial intentional, conscious awareness, by processing of implicitly presented cues beneath participants’ conscious awareness,” said Dr. Liz Coulthard, Consultant Senior Lecturer in Dementia Neurology at the University of Bristol Medical School: Translational Health Sciences.
“Further research in a larger sample size is needed to compare if and how the findings differ between ages, and investigation of underlying neural mechanisms.”
Results were published in the Journal of Sleep Research.
Schedule a Daily Power Nap
Aside from the recent discoveries, naps have been shown to enhance mood, increase alertness and improve performance, as well as to prevent mistakes and accidents. They also reduce stress, thus decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. If your schedule will permit it, a daily nap a lifestyle practice that is well worth the small time investment involved.
To avoid after-nap grogginess and interference with nighttime sleep, keep naps short, ranging from 10 to 30 minutes. While the optimal time for a nap is between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. in the afternoon.
Choose a dark, quiet, cool napping place that will be conducive for falling asleep quickly.