Man Sleeping

Can a Little Extra Sleep Improve Your Memory?

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Man SleepingRemember back to your kindergarten days when you were forced to lie quietly after lunch and nap? But somewhere along the road to becoming a grown-up, naps became something for the very young… or the very old. I mean who really has time to break for sleep in the middle of the day?

But in some cultures, a mid-afternoon siesta is not only allowed, it is encouraged for all ages. And for good reason.

Boost Memory With a Nap

It is accepted that sleep recharges your brain, helping you to process the day and record events and facts to be stored as memories. But what about a nap? Does all sleep, even a brief catnap, possess this capability?

Three researchers from New York questioned this very thing and took it one step further. They wondered if taking a nap, either immediately after or with a time delay after learning something new, would help you not only recall the newly learned material better, but if you could actually generalize the information better.[1]

They recruited 51 college students for the study. They then chose their learning device: 21 Chinese characters, divided into seven conceptual groups.

Each group consisted of three characters that had a common conceptual radical (defining mark) that denoted related meanings. For example, the radical indicated that the word referred to a female (sister, mother, princess, etc.). The participants were given two exposures to the characters.

Next, the participants were divided into four groups:

  • Immediate nap (90-minute nap immediately after learned material)
  • Immediate wake (watch 90-minute video immediately after learned material)
  • Delayed nap (watch 90-minute video, then take a 90-minute nap after learned material)
  • Delayed wake (watch three-hour video after learned material)

After each nap and/or wake period was over (either 90 minutes later or three hours later), the participants were asked to match English meanings to the learned Chinese characters in a multiple choice. This included seven of the previously learned characters, along with 21 new ones that the participants had not studied, but did contain radicals they had learned.

This allowed the researchers to test not only recall, but also relational memory with regard to the radicals. Or, to put it another way, the researchers were looking for the participants’ ability to generalize information.

They found that those participants in the delayed wake group had significantly better recall of the English meanings for old characters than their delayed nap cohorts. (There was no significant difference between the two immediate groups.)

However, when it came to matching English meanings to characters they had NOT previously seen, the two nap groups did significantly better than their wake counterparts. Similarly, the naps groups also performed significantly better on understanding and expressing the general concept of the isolated radicals than the wake participants.

Researchers concluded, “The present study shows a beneficial effect of daytime napping on extracting a general concept from disparately leaned but semantically related stimuli [i.e., relational memory].” They go on to say that napping is beneficial, regardless of whether the sleep time occurs immediately after learning new material or with a delay between learning and napping.

Schedule Some Slumber

Ah, the conundrum. It appears that a little nap can help improve learning, retention and even problem-solving. But, as adults, how on earth can we make time for a nap?

We cannot simply close our office door, blow up the air mattress, and take a 90-minute nap. Nor can we put errands on the back burner or tell the kids to drive themselves home from school.

But that doesn’t mean that we should dismiss the idea altogether. See if there is time in your schedule for 20 minutes of shuteye or even meditation. You can also try to schedule time on the weekends for a quick catnap.

We have to shake the idea that napping is lazy or a waste of precious time. Instead, see it as a way of recharging yourself and your brain for better learning.


[1] Lau, H et al. Relational memory: a daytime nap facilitates the abstraction of general concepts. PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e27139. [Epub 2011 Nov 16.]

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