Napping Is Like Cleaning House For Your Brain, So Go Ahead And Rest Your Eyes For A Minute
As a general rule, I don't need any additional provocation to indulge in a little shut-eye — I'm down for a nap any day, any time. But I certainly won't turn away any evidenciary support for why you should take a nap. I mean, it sure makes it easier to argue in favor of a mid-afternoon snooze if you've got statistics and data to back your play. So buck up, fellow siesta lovers, because research just did us a solid by offering up a convincing theory about how napping "house cleans" the brain like a neural Martha Stewart.
We're all essentially on the same page when it comes to sleep, right? Humans need it. It keeps life from looking like an extended cut of The Walking Dead, by which we're all stumbling around searching for an excuse to devour anyone who looks at us the wrong way. And although scientists haven't been able to explain with all certainly why people rely on sleep so much and why we physically need it, the general consensus is that it is good for us and, well, non-negotiable. As for why, there is a camp of thought gaining steam, and it is known as the "housekeeping theory."
Here's the gist of it: as the name of the theory implies, scientists who support this explanation — like pscyhiatrist Giulio Tononi who, along with his colleagues, recently published his findings in New Scientist — believe that sleep gives the brain the R&R it needs to tidy things up. So while you slumber, your brain is busy getting rid of extraneous connections between neurons so you'll have plenty of room for any new info you come across when you wake back up.
There's actually a specific name for this, too. This phenomenon is known as synaptic pruning. Scientists have long been aware of this process, as it is an important part of brain development. Babies and children have double the amount of synapses as adults in order to facilitate fast learning, so the brain automatically starts to remove less active synapses during adolescence and continues doing so into adulthood. While scientists traditionally believe this process phases out sometime around the late 20s, the "housekeeping theory" purports that adults still rely on synaptic pruning throughout life — it simply occurs when we sleep, which is why sleep is such an integral part of a human existence.
If the housekeeping theory is right, well, it makes a lot of sense. When you miss a night's sleep or don't sleep well, think of how you feel the next day. Your brain feels kind of fuzzy, right? You can't seem to concentrate, and you have trouble picking up new information or learning new tasks. This could very well be because your brain didn't have adequate time to prune back unneeded synapses and make way for new stuff.
Interestingly, there have been links drawn between malfunctions in synaptic pruning and the development of psychiatric and neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. Apparently, such conditions could be a byproduct of a brain that was overzealous in synaptic pruning. The silver lining, though, is that there is no evidence to suggest your brain might get carried away during sleep-induced synaptic pruning. So go ahead — take a little nap! Your brain may need some serious Martha Stewarting.