The New York Times had a great short report about a scientific study comparing a short nap to caffeine for improving a person’s memory. The study found what many people have suspected for years – a nap is better than caffeine.
The benefits of napping are something that proponents of “power napping” have known for years. (Disclaimer: I’ve used the 20 minute power nap for years to re-energize and turn an afternoon impaired by a severe case of “the weakies” into several very productive hours.)
The study specifically found that naps were better for improving recall of a word list after both 20 minutes and 7 hours. Naps were also better than caffeine for improving performance on a finger tapping task. (This tested the ability to recall physically learned memories rather than the word list’s verbally related memories.)
The study also found that the caffeine group performed worse on the finger tapping test than the placebo group, and both napping and caffeine were better than placebo on a perceptual memory task of discriminating textures.
Questions Raised & Possibilities for More Research
Why caffeine is better than placebo for the perceptual task is an interesting finding? Perhaps caffeine has some performance improving effect in peripheral nerves or nerve receptors. This possibility could be examined by studying how caffeine effects other perceptual senses such as vibration and proprioception.
The statement from the study author in the New York Times that, “People think they’re smarter on caffeine,” points to the possibility that caffeine’s central neurological effects create false impressions of performance. This might be another interesting avenue for research. Particularly what does this increase in believed performance ability have on errors rates in important tasks such as flying an airplane or performing medical procedures?
Postscript: Reading this study also reminded me of a discussion I had many years ago with a corporate HR person about napping. She had distributed information about identifying employees who had substance abuse or health problems that included “sleeping at work” as one of the warning signs. The next day, the newspaper had an article about power-napping for productivity – which I sent to her, and she later confirmed that this was not what was meant by “sleeping at work.”