What’s going on in your head while you sleep?

What’s going on in your head while you sleep? The research of Jessica Payne, Associate Professor and Nancy O’Neill Collegiate Chair in Psychology, shows that the non-waking hours are incredibly valuable for your day-to-day, especially for helping to commit information to memory and for problem solving. If you ever thought sleep was just downtime between one task and the next, think again.

Your Brain Doesn’t Take the Night Off

Turns out, your brain pulls an all-nighter when you hit the hay. Many regions of the brain - especially those involved in learning, processing information, and emotion - are actually more active during sleep than when you’re awake. These regions are working together while you sleep, helping you process and sort information you’ve taken in during the course of the day. Payne’s research has focused on what types of information are submitted to memory, and has been instrumental in better understanding how the brain stores information.

Diagram of Brain

You Need a Nap

It’s not just advice for toddlers. Payne’s research indicates all of us could benefit if we took a nap each day. The trick is keeping your naps brief enough, or long enough, so that you don’t wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle and feel groggy or fatigued after. Whatever the duration, Payne’s data suggests we never should’ve left daytime naps in kindergarten.

The ideal time to take a nap is in the afternoon, after lunch.

Stopwatch with 20

Napping for 20 minutes or less will keep the brain in Level 2 sleep, which is beneficial for cognition but is also a stage from which you can be easily awakened.

Stopwatch with 90

Napping for 90 minutes or so will allow your brain to complete an entire sleep cycle. Between 20 and 90 minutes, you run the risk of waking up in the middle of deep slow-wave sleep, and will awaken groggy and unrefreshed.

Can you “catch up” on sleep?

It’s often on our weekend to-do list. Catching up on sleep has been a favorite pastime for most of us since we were teenagers, but as Payne points out, there’s a limit to how much we can benefit from a sleep binge.

Person running after ZZZs

The Power of 20 Minutes

Adults are typically told they need about eight hours of sleep each night. While the majority of us do need between seven and nine hours, Payne points out that the amount of sleep needed by adults is normally distributed, meaning that, while rare, there are those among us who do just fine on four or five hours, and some who need more than nine.

The bad news, of course, is that most of us do not get the sleep we need. The good news? Payne explains that just 20 more minutes of shuteye on a regular basis will help you begin to reap the brain-building benefits of sleep.

…it compounds over time, and it slowly chips away at the sleep debt.