When you find yourself nodding off while at work, church or that interminable committee meeting, you may be more than tired or bored. Your brain may be telling you that it needs to shut down, even if just briefly, in order to be at its best.
Brain scientists continue to puzzle over why we snooze at all, but we now know that a good night’s sleep, and even so-called “cat naps,” contribute significantly to optimal cognitive functioning. In fact, as little as six minutes of repose has a measurable and positive impact on memory and the executive functions of the brain, such as judgment, critical thinking and decision-making.
While it may seem like it, when you sleep, your brain does not shut down or even go into a quiescent mode. In fact, it is just as active as when you are awake. What’s it up to? Well, among other pursuits, it is transferring data from the hippocampus (where short-term memories are processed) to the cerebral cortex (where long-term memories are archived). Which explains why people who get sufficient sleep, including napping, perform better on memory tests.
There is even evidence that napping while at work, which is broadly frowned on in most organizations, makes workers more productive. Despite this, few businesses openly encourage their employees to power nap, in part because we have a longstanding societal bias against so-called “downtime” while on the job. This is exemplified in the phrase, “keep your nose to the grindstone.” But, in fact, if you take a break from the grindstone, whatever that might be in your workplace, and put your nose on a pillow for 10 or 15 minutes, you’ll be a more productive employee.
Bottom Line: Sleep is vital to cognitive functioning, mental well-being and physical health. When your body tells you to catch some winks, it isn’t trying to turn you into a slacker. More often than not, it’s just trying to function at its best.