(NaturalNews) A new study has shed light on the neurological underpinnings of the "power nap," a short nap during the middle of the day that refreshes the mind and often helps illuminate the solution to thorny problems.
The study was conducted by researchers from the Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging at Georgetown University, and its findings were presented at the Neuroscience 2012 conference in New Orleans. The researchers monitored the brain activity of 15 napping adults using a technique called near-infrared spectroscopy. This entailed placing electrode-like optical fibers known as "optodes" on the participants' scalps. The optodes fired infrared radiation through each patient's scalp and skull and into the brain, then measured how much of that radiation bounced back. This allowed the researchers to compare the amount of blood flow to the various regions of the brain, which in turn provided them with an estimate of relative brain activity in each area.
The researchers found that during naps, the brain's right hemisphere was incredibly active and was also transmitting information regularly to the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere, in contrast, was fairly inactive.
"The right side of the brain was better integrated," researcher Andrei Medvedev said.
The power of napping
These findings came as a surprise because in general, the brain's left hemisphere tends to be more active than the right hemisphere in people who are right-handed. Fully 95 percent of the general population (as well as 13 out of 15 study participants) are right-handed.
While the exact nature and significance of the brain's division of labor is not particularly well understood, researchers feel comfortable saying and that in general, the brain's right hemisphere plays a greater role in creative activities, including visualization and big-picture thinking. The left hemisphere, in contrast, tend to be more analytical and excels at tasks such as language processing and mathematics.
The new findings suggest that perhaps naps help the brain to solve problems by enhancing creative thinking. Medvedev suggests that nap time might be an important opportunity for the brain's right hemisphere to engage in certain key "housecleaning" tasks, such as memory consolidation.
This hypothesis is consistent with the most recent theories of sleep, according to neurologist Suresh Kotagal of the Mayo Clinic, who was not involved in the study.
"We are exposed to certain pieces of information, but if we get to sleep on it, the sleep seems to facilitate the transfer of information from the short-term memory bank into the more permanent memory bank," Kotagal said.
Prior studies have shown more directly that naps improve memory function, at least in part because they free up space in the short-term memory by processing and "clearing out" the events of the day. It seems that the brain can only process so many experiences at once without a break for sleep. Naps may also help reduce blood pressure.
Emerging research on the power of naps supports new ideas that are challenging the old assumption that an unbroken eight-hour stretch of nighttime sleep is the healthiest human pattern. Instead, many scientists are now suggesting that the most natural human pattern involves a shorter sleep at night combined with a mid-day nap.
"Emerging scientific evidence suggests that naps -- even very short ones -- significantly enhance cognitive function," said Jonathan Friedman, director of the Texas Brain and Spine Institute. "Increasing understanding of how sleep improves brain function may someday allow us to harness this effect, and the current study may open one of many doors in this regard."