Dear Lucy: During the semester when I have a lot to do and am short on time, I take naps (10–20 minutes each) throughout the night. But is it better to take short naps or one long nap? —Cat Napper
Dear Kitty: Lucy shook herself awake long enough to relay your question to MIT Medical psychologist Xiaolu Hsi, Ph.D. Unfortunately, Hsi’s answer is unlikely to be a crowd-pleaser among MIT students who pride themselves on burning the midnight oil.
While Hsi commends your attempts to grab at least a little sleep while pulling an all-nighter, she says those naps won’t make much of a dent in your “sleep debt”—the cumulative effect of insufficient sleep. At best, Hsi says, “short naps might prevent you from dozing off and hitting your head on the desk.”
Although it may seem that the demands of life at MIT require you to forego full nights of sleep to keep up with your work, sleep deprivation is actually counterproductive, Hsi emphasizes. “We know that ‘sleep debt’ leads to impairment of cognitive functions such as attention, reasoning, learning, and problem-solving,” she explains. “Sleep isn't just for resting. Your brain actually does some pretty important work while you sleep—everything from consolidating memories to pattern analysis. And this work can't happen in a 10- to 20-minute nap.”
Lucy reminds you that just because you’re not falling-down sleepy, it doesn’t mean you’re functioning at your optimum (or MIT-required) level. Keep in mind that going without sleep for 24 hours will make you as impaired as you would be if you were legally drunk!
Good “sleep hygiene” means going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day and sleeping at least eight hours every night. Another thing that may help is being more organized and efficient with your time during the day. Not always easy to do, Lucy knows, but give it a try. Sweet dreams. —Lucy