From Aristotle to The Amazing Dick Bass, and The Seven Minute Nap
Aristotle, Gary Edmonds, Leonardo DaVinci, JFK, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, William E. Stork, and The Amazing Dick Bass... a short list of impressively productive, thoughtful, and influential people in history. None of whom had a single follower on Instagram.
They are also obligate nappers.
Margaret Thatcher was known as The Iron Lady, often working in-excess-of twenty-hour days. She would take multiple snooze breaks throughout the day.
Churchill was said to work third shift; he’d work until the wee hours of the morning, then conk out for two to three hours in the afternoon. John and Jackie Kennedy built their schedules around a two-hour siesta, midday.
Salvador Dali was famous for his eccentricities, as well as his artwork. He’d execute one-second micro-naps by pinching a heavy key between his fingers. As he lost consciousness, the key would fall to the floor, signaling the end of the slumber.
Thomas Edison was famously critical of people who slept more than three to four hours daily, calling it a waste of time and productivity. He was considerably less vocal about his own two-hour timeout in the afternoon. More than a hint of hypocrisy for the man whose invention forever dismantled our circadian rhythms.
Humans, and more specifically modern Americans, are among the few animals on the planet who seek to be monophasic sleepers, accomplishing all our sleep in one session (the effect of aging prostates and consumption of alcoholic diuretics notwithstanding). It flies squarely in the face of our neurophysiology to maintain productivity through the middle of the day, yet we fear being stigmatized as lazy or non-productive if we’re caught with our eyes shut.
Let’s rethink that paradigm.
The science is overwhelming. Researchers at NASA found astronauts and pilots were 34% more accurate, and 100% more alert, for up to two and a half hours, after a twenty-minute nap. (Not only a twenty-minute nap, but specifically. More on nap duration later.) In a peer-reviewed study, four hundred subjects were given a task to learn or a series of images to memorize. Half were instructed to take a thirty minute or less nap, while the control group was kept busy and awake. The nappers performed nearly 100% better on both tests. Thankfully, I was in neither group. My kids could beat me ten-out-of-ten times in Go Fish and Concentration, from the time they were in kindergarten, whether I slept, swam, or stood on my head.
They say, “practice makes perfect.” Unless they happen to be neuroscientists who explain, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Think of your brain at rest (contradictory, I reckon). There are billions of nerve cells. When we form our fingers on the frets to play a song on the guitar, we begin to recruit and fire the required neurons. The more times we play the same chord, the more completely that bundle of neurons becomes bonded, a concept called potentiation. With each repetition, neighboring interneurons are recruited and the neuronal pathway becomes more established. This high-intensity neuronal firing results in even more durable bonds, a process called long term potentiation LTP. The specific electrical activity that defines phase two sleep solders these neuronal pathways and enhances LTP. Long Term Potentiation, and therefore long-term learning and skill building, can take place without it, but it is dramatically enhanced by phase two sleep.
So, let’s take a Cliff’s Notes cruise through the science of sleep. No worries if you nod, all the better to ensure you never forget a word.
Dr. Sarah Mednick does research and teaches at Harvard, and gets paid to lecture for big companies. She’s published “Take a Nap! Change your life.” She must know what she’s talking about. Dr. Mednick explains that sleep takes place in repeating cycles of approximately five phases.
Stage 1 is the sleep-induction phase. We are still aware of our surroundings, but begin to become detached from them. It is in Stage 1 that we are hyper-reactive to subtle sounds. I read this aloud to my wife. She takes great delight in hitting the light switch 0.4 seconds after my head hits the pillow and watching me nearly leap out of bed. Stage 1 is also referred to as the hypnogogic (the converse of which is hypnopompic) state of sleep. We start to lose grip on the conversations and interactions of our awake selves. Some report feeling paralyzed, when still awake. We can experience non-linear thoughts, hallucinate, and make associations we wouldn’t have access to when awake. Mystics, mavericks, and hippies have long-sought access to prolonged periods mimicking Stage 1 by any means possible. I call Stage 1 “Rookie Time.” Dr. Mednick says Stage 1 lasts two to five minutes; I can knock it out in a wink.
Stage 2: we are truly unconscious. Our heartbeat, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and body temperature begin to drop. Our muscles begin to relax, hence, the nap nod. (We will address specific counter- measures later.) We also disconnect from external stimuli. It is in Stage 2 that we assign appropriate context to events we have reacted to. I’m pretty sure my wife suffers from Stage 2 sleep deficiency. She gets disproportionately frustrated at me for returning empty cereal boxes to the cupboard.
On an EEG, Stage 2 sleep is characterized by a series of lightning quick spindle waves, all within a fraction of a second. A series of spindle waves conclude with a higher-amplitude K-complex. Spindle waves and K-complexes are the specific electrical activity that help hardwire skills, processes, and memory. Stage 2 sleep reliably lasts for about 17 minutes.
My dad and I, The Amazing Dick Bass, Kishan Khemani, and Gary Edmonds have all, independently, concluded the optimum period of time for napping to be at-or-near seven minutes. We have just learned that scientifically speaking, we could punch that out to anything short of twenty-five minutes without harm.
For the purpose of this article we’ll refer to any event that has us safely in Stage 2 Sleep as the Seven Minute Nap (SMN).
My people are primarily working folks. Evidently if you’re running large democracies or inventing light bulbs there is benefit in the final three phases of sleep.
Just a few words for the sake of completion.
Stage 3 and 4 are the repair and maintenance phases. It is when our body changes the oil and filters, greases the U-joints, checks the air in our tires, and makes sure the lights are all working. Our heart rate and body temperature drop further. Noises like a cough and conversational tones will not wake you. I must have been in Stage 3 on January 19th, 1974. Two railcars full of isobutane collided six blocks from my house. I knew nothing of it until my dad was dragging me down the stairs by my arm. I recall a ball of fire outside my bedroom window. In Stage 3, the stress hormone cortisol is shut off, and the pituitary gland starts cranking out growth hormone to repair bones and muscle and metabolize fat and cholesterol. Yes, in order to lose weight, we must sleep. My son will be able to eat 10,000 calories a day and stay below 200lbs for life. Stages 3 and 4 are also called Slow Wave Sleep.
Also in Stage 4 our brain searches for stimuli and response that are no-longer useful, and uncouples them. Think about soldiers and victims of abuse who are battling PTSD. We once had a client who was a retired Marine, having seen combat in Desert Storm. He lived in fear, and could not sleep longer than twenty minutes until he bought a Great Pyrenees to stand guard.
After Stage 4 there is an obligatory seven to eight-minute rebound into Stage 2, then REM - the party in your head - begins. Our heart and respiratory rate increases, up to forty percent. Our body temperature drops further, to the point that we don’t regulate it, but the temperature in our head increases. It is essentially a reptilian state. We breathe irregularly, in fits and starts. Our body convulses, and we get the characteristic rapid twitching of our eyes. For better or worse, REM is when our most vivid dreams take place, yet, thankfully, our body is paralyzed. Explaining why our legs feel like lead pipes and we can’t run from the Tyrannosaurus with the face of our eighth grade English teacher, but she never seems to catch us? It is in REM that long-term memory, complex learning, and creativity takes place.
Michael Perry must only REM sleep. If I ever crank out one chapter on the same plane as Population 485, I’ll do a Lambeau Leap.
The intricacies of effective napping, in my experience.
I have no illusion that more time in Stage 2 sleep will make me play guitar like Joel Paterson, but we have established that the SMN will enhance our alertness, accuracy, and memory. Still, there are those who won’t, don’t, or say they can’t.
My editor Mittsy Voiles says she cannot nap, and never has. Science does not apply to Mittsy; I’ll make no attempt.
Potentially the greatest impediment to effective napping is The Siesta Stigma, whether real or perceived. I’ve long felt that a significant percentage of human behavior revolves around managing our insecurities. Most mental health professionals I’ve asked say, “Oh, about 125%.” In the absence of any sort of super-power, the best I can do is work longer and harder. If I’m caught with my eyes closed, I surrender a measure of my iron man status.
Does it have to be that way?
We know the folks mentioned earlier first as fathers, philosophers, authors, artists, politicians, statesmen, and folks who simply get-shit-done. So then if we are looking to emulate their productivity, should we not view their tendency to slumber in the same way we would the trucks they drive, the hammers they swing, or the boots they wear?
Ryan Haack is a paragon of productivity. He’s in the barn by five every morning, and hopes to spend an hour reading or writing in order to get to sleep by eleven at night. Ryan has worked a forty-hour week by lunch on Wednesday. He naps to survive. I asked him about the perception of the lazy napper. Ryan spent some time in Japan, where they take napping very seriously. He explained that if the man or woman is hard-working and productive, they are revered in their nap habit. Only Ryan Haack could learn this in a country where he doesn’t speak a word of their language and he was only there for a week or so.
Our bodies’ craving for sleep is driven by two factors. The need for SWS (Stage 3 and 4) is dictated by a phenomenon called sleep-pressure. Sleep pressure is dependent on proximity to our alarm clock. Sleep pressure is at a minimum immediately after we wake up and peaks near bed time. The other factor is circadian rhythm, which wants us to lay down six or seven hours after we’ve woken up. Throw a Cowboy Barbecue sandwich in your stomach and a lunch-and-learn from a drug rep and any attempt to stay awake is flying in the face of a thousand years of evolution.
Research shows that the benefits of the SMN can last for up to two-and-a-half hours. Which answers, “I can’t stay awake from one to three in the afternoon, but after work, I get my second wind.”
“I don’t have time to nap.” Oh, really?
My wife worked at a high-end referral equine hospital. The nearest fast food or convenient store was five minutes, one way. The nearest Starbucks was a seven minute drive. Yes, I know, primitive. With the app, the average wait at a Starbucks is three to five minutes. Alternately, pack a ham sandwich in a soft-sided cooler with an ice pack. Depending on whether your style is urban-chic or old school, a Yeti or Stanley thermos will keep your coffee hot all day long. You’ve likely saved five hundred calories, two-hundred grams of cholesterol, a ten-dollar bill, and ample time for a SMN. In doing so, you’ve can improve everything from your memory to your sex life and skin tone by spending a solid ten-minutes in Stage 2 sleep.
“I don’t have a place to take a nap.”
First, a disclaimer. Subject to my ramblings on a daily basis, with the exception of my behaviorist, Mittsy, my staff has yet to read a word I’ve written. I’m good with that. Often, they’ve lived them, or been captive as I regale clients with them. If this little essay would ever make it to their eyes, there could be a protest. The Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic was built in 1977 by a stubborn German-Scotsman (yes, redundant) on a tight budget. Our physical plant doesn’t have a break room where haggard veterinary nurses can escape the telephones, let alone space to recline.
To this point, we’ve explored the scientific benefit and ideal timing of the SMN. I’ve attempted to dispel the Siesta Stigma and we’ve spoken briefly on creating the time to do it.
This, dear reader, is where the rubber meets the road. My dad was one of the most productive men and skilled nappers who’s ever drawn a breath. After nine years in higher education, and over twenty-five years of veterinary practice, I have developed skills organically, and learned by observation from some of the best in the business. I’ve read articles from The National Sleep Foundation, Mayo Clinic, and Web MD, and the relevant chapters of Dr. Sarah C. Mednick’s book. At this point I feel exquisitely qualified to expound on the proper execution of the SMN.
I’ll introduce techniques perfected on job sites, offices, and the cab of pickup trucks. I’ll be largely in lock-step with the learned, but on the topic of comfort, my people do not line up precisely with Dr. Mednick and Mayo. Finally, I’ll plug what I consider to be a gaping hole in what’s published on effective napping, the PSMN, or Post Seven Minute Nap. This is a Master Class. If it takes you a full five minutes to get through Stage 1, or if you slip into Stage 3 and succumb to inertia, do not get frustrated. Joel Paterson did not nail El Cumbancharro the first time through. It takes practice.
We’ve established the profound and long-lasting effect, and therefore, the need to nap. For some the consequences can be dramatic. If I nod off during a lunch-n-learn I miss out on the molecular mechanism of fluralaner and have to look it up later. My dad was a heavy equipment operator. He ran everything from a bulldozer to a 500 Ton Tower Crane. A Cat D-11 weighs over a hundred ton and is close to 1000 horsepower. If he nodded off on the levers, he could take out a twenty-foot swath of Watertown.
Dr. Mednick and others posit that a comfortable, quiet, dark space is required for proper napping. I beg to differ.
At his retirement party, I met some of the guys Dad worked with. The first thing they told me was his napping habits, “That old man of yours can fall asleep anywhere.” If there had been cell phones in the seventies, someone would have a collection of photos of Dad on the catwalk of a Manitowoc crane, on the tracks of a Cat dozer, or in the bucket or a rubber-tire end loader. On the job he always kept his lunch bucket and thermos under his seat. He’d throw down mom’s meatloaf sandwich and bag of chips, prop his head on his hard hat and be throwing K-complexes, in seconds flat.
For those of us in an office setting, Dr. Mednick recommends a functional or physical Do Not Disturb sign.
That’s an awesome option, if you can get it.
There are times when an uninterrupted SMN is going to be disrupting to work flow. When Indie Jones hits the front door of the clinic, he’s lunging for jugular veins. “We’ll get him settled as soon as Dr. Stork wakes up to calculate how much dexdomitor and torbugesic,” is not consistent with low stress handling techniques and the longevity of technicians. When Jennifer DeKrey phones after letting Riley out eight times overnight to relieve his loose stool, if Dr. Stork had his Do Not Disturb sign up, the subsequent game of phone-tag could trash an expensive oriental rug.
Rather than a Do Not Disturb plaque on my office door, I’ll simply close and latch it. My office chair has sturdy arms and reclines to seventy-five degrees. I can bury my chin in my chest, cross my right leg over my left and let my toe touch the filing cabinet to prevent further rotation. Technicians with questions will tap once - or not - on their way in. Much like Dali’s key hitting the floor, the click of the latch will jolt me to sufficient awareness to calculate a dose of Metra-whatever-i-zone for a sixty-five-pound Golden Retriever with lingering diarrhea.
Sheila chuckled smugly as the nice lady at Culver’s gave us (me) a Senior discount. As country veterinarians go, I’m a bit of a dinosaur. My first day on the job was June 15th, 1992. At that point, our distribution was 70:30, farm work to pets. As of EOY 2019, the pendulum has swung, and then some. Farm work constitutes less than three-percent of our work. My accountant recommends that we have an appreciation luncheon with the farmers and hang up the coveralls. To this point, I don’t take days off. I’d rather talk politics, the NFL, and dairy economics with Rick on Monday mornings. Ed will often bring donuts to the Wollin herd check, and Ryan Haack always has a fresh quote from Margaret Thatcher or his buddy Brian from Alaska.
It also sets the stage for the crown jewel of the SMN, The Truck Nap.
If we are to achieve the thermo-neutral, and physically comfortable environment Dr. Mednick recommends, there is both art, and environmental concerns.
In the winter time, find a southern exposure. Especially dressed in coveralls, fleece and a stocking hat, the UV on the windshield will render the cab an optimal 58 F (14.4C), without idling the engine. May through September here in Southern Wisconsin, the average midday temperature is 80F. In order not to bake yourself to medium-rare you’re going to need to be facing north, with a healthy cross-breeze through the cab. Regardless of time of year, angle is everything. On any given country road, you’ll find an excellent selection of field roads. In order to get tractors and implements into the field, they’ll usually have a nice soft approach. Back down to the point that the angle of your seat counters the gravitational pull of the nap nod when you slip into Stage 2. Always be aware of footing. You never want to rut a farmer’s field, or worse yet - call Steve for a tow.
For those in urban settings, you may not have access to the environments described above. The circle drive at Tyranena Park on the North East corner of Rock Lake is one of the most pristine spots I know. Seven Minute Nappers who have not come to grips with the Siesta Stigma will try and not make eye contact as they idle in like lovers on a noon rendezvous. Depending on the month the little lot can provide proper exposure, cross-breeze, and the thrum of the water against the shore. It is also flat. In which case, I encourage you to use the recline lever on your seat. This is a fine option, but it leads us to an issue that I found to be overlooked entirely in the literature.
PSMN: The Post Seven Minute Nap.
The perils of sleep-inertia are well-documented, and we’ve all experienced it. What I can find no mention of, is the benefit of PNM, post-nap-momentum. The fewer adjustments you have to make when your eyes open, the sooner you’ll return to productivity. In the case of the truck nap, you’ll have to fumble with the lever to get your seat back to just right, unless you’re a fancy-pants equine vet with a Euro SUV with pre-sets on your leather seats. For office naps, I’ll have the record I’m writing across my lap and the pen in hand.
On Saturdays I often work until noon or so. I’ll go home and put two slices of bread and cheese on the griddle. Cheese toasties are my favorite lunch treat on weekends. While I’m waiting for the bread to brown, I’ll set up my saw horses, make sure the batteries on the drills are charged, put the T-25 bit in the chuck, and lay out my star-headed screws. After I finish my milk and do the dishes, I’ll put my Redwings back on. We have a dog bed in the laundry room that always has an empty jar of Jif that makes the perfect head-prop.
With all due respect to the research, I feel the need for comfort is on a sliding scale. It seems excessive comfort can present a gravitational pull similar to sleep inertia.
Sheila has become my test subject. She says she just can’t wind down as quickly as I do. It’ll come to her.
Research is pending.
Gary Edmonds will read this and say, “No shit, Willy.” He’ll likely have wisdom to add. He’s retired to the point he has time to both nap, and read my ramblings. He might even say that one necessitates the other. If there is a single pearl on these pages that contribute to your rest, well-being, productivity, and safety, then I’ve done my job. Dad always said, “I never learned a thing with my mouth open.” If there are techniques you’ve developed, please do share at firstname.lastname@example.org
In closing I’ll mention a sub-set of the SMN. I reckon we could call it the Bonus or the Special-Occasion SMN. We’ve all envied our dogs sleeping fitfully in the yard. Ryan waxes on how comfortable it would be to lay in a fresh-cut hay field. Alas, there are bugs. If we tried that, we’d be inundated by mosquitoes, flies, and fire ants… the enormous majority of the time. There are a few days in the early spring and a couple in September. Shortly after a quick cold snap, or days before the first hatch, when you can find a patch of grass, often aided by a cross wind, and lay down in the lawn just like Tugger and Token.
It’s supposed to start snowing this evening, through tomorrow. A total of six to ten inches is possible. I hope it comes through. It takes an hour or so to plow the three drives and the door yard at the farm. Then there’s just enough shovel work around the tracks of the machine sheds to just about break a sweat. Bundled in snow pants, boots, and my Carhartt hat, there’s nothing more peaceful than falling into a south-facing snowbank and shutting your eyes.
You’ll never get a full seven minutes around our house though. Token L-O-V-E-S to chase snowballs, and she does not take no for an answer.