The science is in: You need to take more naps

In his latest book, 'When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing', Daniel Pink makes a convincing case for more naps.

Dan Pinker makes a case for more naps. (Photo by Oli Scaraff/AFP/Getty Images)
A reveler relaxes in a hammock at the Glastonbury Festival of Music and Performing Arts on Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in Somerset, South West England, on June 21, 2017. (Photo by Oli Scaraff/AFP/Getty Images)

Napping is not the first piece of advice that came to mind when purchasing a ticket to listen to author Daniel Pink in conversation with neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. Yet two weeks ago I sat in a small Santa Monica theater listening to the men discuss the benefits of naps. Given the fact that both men are not that much older than me, I shook my head in agreement.


The men were discussing Pink’s latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Pink argues that we often ask why something did or did not work out, but rarely do we consider timing. Over the course of 218 pages, he makes a convincing argument. Along with two research assistants, he pored over 700 clinical studies to discover a common trend: the midday trough is not an optimal time to handle serious work.

Pink divides humans into three camps: larks, which make up 14 percent of the population; owls, 21 percent; and third birds, 65 percent. This he measured by the average midpoint of sleep. The predominant number of people hit their midpoint around 4 am, making them third birds. 

From these data, Pink devised a schedule: do your analytic tasks in the morning and insight tasks later in the afternoon and evening. And do not perform either during midday. That’s the time for administrative work, tasks not requiring creative problem solving or deep insights. While exact times vary from person to person, Pink’s outlook is based on circadian rhythms, which affect us to a degree few recognize.

Which is why Pink is now an advocate for napping, what he calls “Zambonis for our brains.” A former nap skeptic, he now believes that naps “smooth out the nicks, scuffs, and scratches a typical day has left on our mental ice.” Among the studies he covers:

  • Nappers outperform non-nappers in retaining information 
  • Nappers are twice as likely to solve complex problems than non-nappers
  • Napping boosts short-term memory and associative memory
  • A nap bestows many benefits, including mood, alertness, and cognitive performance
  • Napping strengthens your immune system and can reduce your blood pressure
  • Napping increases the likelihood you’ll achieve a flow state
  • A study of over 23,000 Greeks discovered that nappers experienced a 37 percent decrease in the likelihood they’ll die from heart disease
  • Naps increase alertness in air traffic controllers
  • Italian police officers who nap before evening shifts have 48 percent fewer traffic accidents than non-nappers

Duration matters. The ideal nap is 10 to 20 minutes long. After 20, sleep inertia sets in—you wake up groggy and confused. Hit an hour and your recovery time will be like waking up from a long slumber.

Interestingly, there’s even a coffee nap hack. I’ve done this inadvertently and can anecdotally confirm its benefits. Since caffeine takes 25 minutes to enter your bloodstream, drinking coffee and then taking a 20-minute nap—Pink calls it a “nappuccino”—lets you get the nap boost and the coffee lift. This technique has been shown to reduce sleepiness and improve performance.

Pink concludes by calling for a return to the siesta. In an attempt to compete with other nations, Spain eliminated it a decade ago. In some ways, Pink’s entire book can be summed up in this example: by trying to improve performance, the government took the exact opposite route to achieving such. Instead of pulling other nations to their side, Spain abandoned a longtime practice with a positive track record.


A man takes a nap after drinking a coffee inside a Starbucks in Beijing on June 28, 2017. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Pink reminds us of our own cultural attitude. At the time when Spain was eliminating sanctioned midday rest, Americans boasted about getting by on only four hours sleep. Then a library’s worth of research on sleep was published. We went from calling that person a hero to a fool. Instead of getting work done, he was likely performing at a subpar level while risking the safety of others.

We are in need of many shifts. For all the accolades we award ourselves for technological innovation, we’ve taken a dozen backward in our diets, movement patterns, social relationships, and sleep. Churning out content and pushing files across networks does not make for a fulfilling life. Living a healthy life means we’re imbued with a sense of meaning, which is hard to feel when constantly exhausted.

As with most things, humans are more reactive than proactive. We don’t change our diets until organs fail. We don’t exercise until our body feels so foreign that we realize we have no clue how to control our limbs. And we don’t sleep until unconscious processes are so compromised that our body rebels in the form of disease and discomfort. Even then we still refuse, so deeply embedded are habits of behavior, no matter how toxic.

Which is a shame. A healthy mind and a healthy body are not separate processes. They’re part of the same phenomenon—the process of being. We might bathe ourselves in electric light late into the night and think it an advance, but there’s a quarter-million years of evolutionary history that put us to sleep when the sun set and woke us up on its return. The midday sun was the worst, so our ancestors took cover and… napped. We can fight history but we can’t escape it. It made us. Honoring that rhythm is only to our benefit.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

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Credit: Pixabay
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