Modern society may be facing a massive sleep debt. But is eight hours a night really the best way to repay it?
Denis Moniotte is co-founder of a Brussels-based fintech startup serving banks in the developing world. His team of 10 people is entirely remote, and he works from home. And every day, in between Zoom meetings and emails, feeding the kids when they get home from school and his daily runs, Denis takes a nap. Or maybe two.
‘I started doing it back at university when I was studying for exams’, says Denis. ‘First by myself, and then when I was studying with friends.’ He was amazed at how intensely his friends studied, but often felt he couldn’t keep up. In those moments he’d close his books, find a corner to lie down in and sleep. Now, 20 years later, he naps – or more precisely, micro-naps – whenever and wherever he needs to: in his home office, in a crowded meeting room, in the airport, he considers himself something of a nap expert.
‘If your goal is to fall asleep,’ he says, ‘you probably won’t. My goal is simply to rest, and I almost always fall asleep.’ His daily micro-nap can last ten to twenty minutes. ‘I often wake up with a start. I think I haven’t slept at all, but in reality, maybe 13 or 14 minutes have passed. You have to jump up then, and not let yourself fall back into a deeper sleep.’ This prevents what’s called sleep inertia, the grogginess you feel after a longer nap. Denis never sets an alarm unless he’s got an imminent meeting, and in that case, he’ll even settle down for a nap ten minutes before it starts, setting the alarm to wake him up one minute before to log in to Zoom.
This sleep discipline is something we all might learn from.
In recent years the power of sleep has been lauded in a host of articles, podcasts, studies and books, most notably neuro-scientist Matthew Walker’s bestselling Why We Sleep. According to Walker, sleep is essential for memory formation and learning and healing, and our abundance of REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep, where much of our vivid dreaming occurs) compared to other primates may have helped stimulate our socio-cultural evolution and allowed us to dominate the food chain and build complex civilizations, and in the process, completely ruin our sleep.
Because according to Walker, the bad news is that electric lights, blue light emitting screens, caffeine and punishing work hours are all conspiring to impair our ability to get the same quantity and quality of sleep as our pre-industrial ancestors. We’re facing a collective sleep debt with devastating personal and societal consequences: more heart disease, more dementia and Alzheimer’s, more nervousness and dopamine addiction and horrendously costly accidents like the Chernobyl meltdown and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
If Walker’s diagnosis is terrifying, his prescription is simple: do everything you can to get 8 hours of sleep every night. This recommendation has fueled a whole sleep industry pitching home sleep monitors, eye masks and black-out curtains, plush memory foam beds, and apps training you on highly regimented sleep hygiene protocols to limit caffeine, alcohol, stress and screen time. All these tools aim to give you the kind of blissfully unimpeded high-quality sleep our ancestors enjoyed nightly.
But did they? Not everybody agrees with Walker’s ideal of sleep. Critics point out that the kind of sleep Walker advocates for was something our ancestors – sleeping outside in the dirt, necessarily vigilant for human and animal predators – never dreamed of. Is Walker’s 8-hour sleep the equivalent of fuzzy slippers, a warm bath, a high-calorie meal and a weekend on the sofa watching Netflix? In other words, the kind of comfort we may instinctively seek, but that’s actually very bad for us?
Which brings us back to the nap. Only a few mammals, including many modern adult humans, try to get by on monophasic sleep – doing all our sleep in one big block. Most animals sleep in multiple phases throughout the day, as do human babies and older people. And adult humans do experience a biologically-induced postprandial (after-lunch) alertness dip that seems to support what siesta cultures have known for millennia: we may be engineered for biphasic sleep. That means a longer bout of sleep at night, coupled with a midday nap.
While Google nap pods, nap bars and even rentable corporate nap trucks are increasingly available to the modern office worker, more important is developing what sleep trainers for elite athletes refer to as sleepability – the ability to fall asleep quickly given basic minimal conditions. Denis has, and his nap routine is still one our ancestors may have recognized. He first chooses a hard-ish surface, whether it’s the very firm sofa in his home office or, if he’s waiting for a flight to Dakar, a nice spot on the airport floor – the important thing is to lie down. He balls up a jacket for a pillow, covers himself lightly, closes his eyes and sleeps.
Micro-naps, even as short as 10 minutes, may have an incredibly restorative function for the mind. They may stimulate creativity, like power nappers Albert Einstein and Salvador Dalí claimed, or at least help you see the forest for the trees. As Denis says, ‘I don’t forget about my concerns when I nap. But it feels like I carried them through the land of dreams, having let my thoughts circulate freely there. It’s not magic, but it helps me relativize the problem, to get a bit of distance and perspective’. So if Walker’s 8-hour sleep rule is a prescription for making you stressed, consider the power of the humble nap. It may be everything your ancestors dreamed of.