A Nap A Day

January 31, 2008
Off to dreamland: Junior David Taylor naps in Bostocks's Carpenter Reading Room

Off to dreamland: Junior David Taylor naps in Bostocks's Carpenter Reading Room. Bill Bamberger

On the third floor of Bostock Library, in the Carpenter Reading Room, a student slouches back in his seat. His face leans heavily on his hand, and a curtain shades his face from the warm autumn sunlight pouring in through a nearby window. His stockinged feet are propped up on a second chair; his backpack rests underneath. A copy of The Economist lies open in his lap. He sleeps.

A few seats down, a young woman in a blue cardigan stares for several minutes at the same page of what appears to be a long, photocopied book chapter. She nods in and out, every once in a while sitting up straighter and letting her eyes drift over a few lines of text. After a time, she gets up and moves to an empty carrel, snaps on the attached desk lamp, and sets up her article and a notebook. She rests her head on both hands and steels herself for a fresh attempt.

Witness the nap. Whether intentional or not, napping plays an important role in the lives of Duke students today.

Some find that quick power naps in the middle of long reading or study sessions help to improve their focus. "When you're reading for three or four hours in a sitting, you need that twenty minutes to recharge," says Adam Van Wart, a student in the master of theological studies program. "It's inevitable."

For others, naps are necessary given busy academic and social schedules that often don't allow for sufficient rest at night. A survey conducted in the fall of 2006 through the National College Health Assessment reported that while roughly 68 percent of Duke students said they got a good amount of sleep four or fewer nights per week, only 32 percent said they got a good amount of sleep five or more nights per week. ("Good sleep" was defined as getting enough sleep to feel well rested in the morning.)

Xavier A. Preud'Homme, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Duke whose research interests include sleep, says that Duke's move in 2004 to abolish 8 a.m. classes, moving back the start of the day, represents a laudable juncture of academic and evidence-based information about how the body works. "We know that the internal clock in young adults goes through a change. They begin naturally to go to bed late. This happens transiently and predictably in teens and young adults—they don't do it just to bug their mothers."

Even an extra half hour or forty-five minutes of sleep in the morning helps students in this life stage get to class feeling alert and ready to face the stress of an academic day. But in spite of such healthy shifts, America remains a country in a chronic state of sleep deprivation. "A leading cause of daytime sleepiness is the American trend of wanting to be performing at one's best all the time, wanting to live many lives in one lifetime—and so they are curtailing the normal amount of sleep," Preud'Homme says.

Researchers used to think that eight hours a night was enough, but recent research indicates that there are far more people who need more than eight hours than those who need fewer. Still, facing academic deadlines and social pressures, students, like other Americans, don't always have time to fit in a full eight, nine, or ten hours at night.

So they nap.

An afternoon nap seems to make scientific sense, Preud'Homme says. Human beings have a biphasic sleep pattern: that is, an internal clock that signals a need to sleep in midafternoon and then again in the evening. Give in to that urge, experts say, and you will reap benefits of increased alertness, productivity, creativity—even happiness.

But once you commit to the art of napping, don't plan too long a siesta. Sleep is a complicated business consisting of several stages. "The art of napping is to limit it to twenty minutes to prevent entering the deep stages of sleep," Preud'Homme says. "When you remain in light sleep, you are refreshed, but it doesn't impair your nighttime sleep cycle. One of the functions of sleep is to recover. It also serves to encode what you learn." Exceed twenty minutes, and you'll be rudely awakened from the deep stage of sleep, and end up feeling cranky and disoriented.

The library is just one of the places that students refresh themselves. A highly unscientific survey published on the student affairs website found students' other favorite spots to be their own rooms, the basement of the Teer Engineering Library, and the couches in the Bryan Center.

Sophomore Sarah Takvorian naps in public places when necessary, but says she prefers to sleep in the comfort of her own dorm room. She's developed a reputation among her friends as a prolific napper, often taking two a day. Sometimes college feels like a competition among her peers to see who can thrive, or at least get by, on the least amount of sleep, she says. But she doesn't play that game. "Even if I'm getting an adequate amount of sleep by other people's standards, I still nap."

Napping, Takvorian acknowledges, is a good tool for catching up on sleep and for reducing stress; it's also a great procrastination technique. She says the college schedule, with classes distributed throughout the days and weeks with long breaks between, is very nap-friendly, but she worries about life after Duke. "I'm actually terrified that I won't be able to nap, and that I'll have to adopt a regular person's sleeping habits."

On the other side of that equation is Christine E. Leach '07, who fondly remembers napping on the quad outside Duke Chapel. Working for Blackrock, an asset management firm in New York, she's found that for a newly minted financial professional, sleep deprivation is the norm.

"All my friends and my roommates are in that same boat," Leach says. "We're only sleeping five or six hours a night during the week, and staying out until four in the morning on the weekends.

"I do think about going to the back room at work and putting my head down for a minute. But it's so taboo to be tired! I think napping makes a lot more sense than dragging your feet the whole day."

Napping is not necessarily always a good thing, sleep experts emphasize. Someone with insomnia may find that sleeping during the day makes nighttime wakefulness even worse. In a 1996 study, Dan G. Blazer, a psychiatric geriatrician at Duke Medical Center, found that older people who napped didn't live as long, perhaps, he says, because their napping has something to do with not sleeping well at night as a result of underlying medical problems. Even for younger people, daytime sleepiness and napping can indicate an underlying pathology such as sleep apnea, or mental-health issues such as depression.

To that end, the Duke Student Health Center, in 2005, opened the Oasis, an on-campus space for students to use for respite. Furnished with two automatic massage chairs, comfortable furniture, a soothing fountain, plants, and even an aquarium, it can be a nice place for a quick snooze.

"It's a relaxation space," says Kevin J. Harrell, a health education specialist for the health center and director of the Oasis. "Students meditate here, and we offer counseling for stress management, relaxation techniques, and sleep hygiene. I see more people who have difficulty with sleep related to stress and anxiety than anything else. I teach them about the benefits of getting enough sleep.

"Often they just want to talk to somebody about stress management. I think that there are more students who are seeking help and understand that they don't have to go without sleep."

Of course, not every Duke community member favors naps. Laura Barnard, a master of divinity student, says she avoids the practice. "I always feel like I'm going to miss something," she says. "When I was young, I even hated naps." Forced to take a daily nap after her older sister had grown out of it, Barnard would make her family "promise they wouldn't do anything fun while I was sleeping."

She acknowledges that, on occasion, she'll try to fit in a nap out of sheer necessity—for example, after a late night out followed by an early morning at church. But even in those cases, she says, daytime sleep doesn't come easy. "If I allow myself an hour for napping, it might take me half of that time just to fall asleep. It becomes an entirely frustrating process." She never falls asleep reading. It always has to be a conscious act. When she does fall asleep, she'll often wake up groggy.

Sitting on the chapel steps, she gazes out at the quad, where two young women lie on the grass, apparently asleep, one with her head on top of a book. "I'm incredibly jealous of these people who can take a twenty-minute power nap and wake up refreshed," she admits. "Even outside, with all the noise. It's really incomprehensible to me."