Naps vs. Coffee. Which Is a Better Choice for the Sleep-Deprived Musician?

Naps were a way of life for me in college (though it’s debatable whether a 4-hour “nap” still qualifies as such), and there are indications that napping is becoming a more culturally accepted practice as companies like Google, The Huffington Post, Zappos, and Nike are encouraging employees to nap instead of insisting that they try to simply power through the mental fog of a mid-day lull.

Indeed, the literature suggests that we can derive a whole range of benefits from sleep – from better focus and performance to happiness and apparently even greater attractiveness.

However, when we can’t get the sleep we need (and really, isn’t that all of us?), coffee or an “energy” drink still seem to be the old standbys.

Sure these can perk you up a bit. And yes, they can enhance concentration and attention. But what sort of impact does caffeine have on memory and learning?

Can caffeine keep you alert enough to think clearly and learn effectively, or is a good old fashioned power nap still the way to go?

Caffeine vs. sleep

Most studies on the effects of caffeine or sleep tend to focus on indicators like attention or wakefulness. This can yield helpful information when it comes to safety in the workplace or on the road, but it doesn’t shed much light on more cognitively demanding processes, like learning your part to a new piece before rehearsal in the morning.

So, a group of researchers at UC San Diego ran 61 participants through a series of cognitive tasks emphasizing verbal memory, motor skills, and perceptual learning to see if there is a difference in effectiveness between caffeine and naps.

A day of tests

Participants came into the lab in the morning, and were trained on three different tasks – a verbal task (involving the memorization of lists of words), a motor task (involving tapping fingers on a keyboard in a particular sequence for speed and accuracy), and a perceptual task (involving picking out two targets against a background designed to make this a little tricky).

At noon, they were given lunch. And at 1pm, they were randomly assigned to either a “nap” group or “drug” group (i.e. caffeine or placebo).

The nappers then took a nap (90-minutes max), while the drug group spent that time listening to a book on tape.

At 3pm, nappers were awake, and half the drug folks were given a 200mg caffeine pill, while the other half received a placebo.

At 4pm, everyone was tested on all three tasks.

Nappers win!

The caffeine group reported feeling more alert right before their tests than either the nap or placebo groups.

However, when it came to performance, alertness didn’t necessarily equate to better scores. Lo and behold, the nappers outperformed their caffeine counterparts on both the verbal memory task and the motor learning task.

The motor learning task results were particularly interesting, in that while the folks who took naps or a placebo pill demonstrated significant improvement and turned in markedly higher scores from the morning session to the afternoon session, the caffeine group did not show improvement from morning to afternoon. Their learning seemed to be impaired.

It’s as if they started right back where they left off, whereas the nappers and placebo group experienced greater consolidation of their motor memory, seemingly picking back up at a higher level than where they had ended the morning session.

The limits of caffeine

At the end of the day, it seems that while caffeine is certainly an effective way of staying alert and awake, there are some limits.

Specifically, that while you may really love your 4pm grande mochachocolattespresso, it’s not a complete substitute for sleep. Feeling more alert is great – but it doesn’t necessarily translate to improved memory, learning, and performance on other more complex cognitive tasks.

Take action

So the next time you’re feeling a wee bit sluggish and starting to nod off in the practice room, try a short power nap instead of taking a trip to your corner Starbucks.

How long a nap is best?

Well, it seems to depend on what you need, and how much time you have.

Check out this smorgasbord of sleep and nap-related links, and the 5 nap lengths you can choose from: Why you should really take a nap this afternoon, according to science

Additional resources

Why do we need to sleep anyway? As in, what’s going on in our brain when we’re sleeping?

Jeff Iliff @TED: One more reason to get a good night’s sleep

photo credit: woonhian via photopin cc

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17 Responses

  1. Why one or the other? This piece suggests the ‘coffee nap’, where you drink a cup of coffee, then take a thirty minute nap. It takes about thirty minutes for the caffeine to enter your system. Apparently leaves a person more alert than either cof or napping alone.

    There are numerous other reports around the internet .

    1. True, but these studies have looked at the effect on wakefulness of coffee-naps compared to wakefulness of not having coffee-naps. I don’t think they looked at coffee-naps compared to just naps alone. (And the effectiveness also depends on your baseline coffee intake so ti gets complicated.)
      And in any case, they weren’t looking at memorization/learning ability, just how alert you feel.
      Putting the coffee-nap information together with the stuff in the article above I would say that if you need to be alert then a coffee-nap is a great idea, and if you can’t get both then either a nap or coffee would be the next best thing. BUT if you need to learn something then a nap or nothing at all would be better than coffee. So I guess what I do depends on what my plans are for after lunch 🙂

  2. Naps can be refreshing and effective, but they can also interfere with depth and length of sleep during the night.

    As for stimulants, I learned my lesson in my sleep deprived college years that Caffeine is no substitute for a good nights rest and will only make you more aware of how tired you are and how little you remember. This can be an illusory pick-me-up feeling so that if all you require is the mechanical energy and positive attitude to power through a mindless task, a coffee or an energy drink can get you through it. However, if it is a memory test or any kind of exercise that requires mental agility, then Caffeine on a sleep deprived person is about as effective as splashing water on a drunk person.

    1. Good point about naps affecting night-time sleep. I’m really cognizant about this with my kids, since if we let the little one catch a little snooze in the middle of the day, it means her bedtime gets pushed back, which means we end up staying up later and getting less sleep too.

  3. I can’t stand the term “power nap.” Adding “power” implies that there’s something wrong with a regular, Brand-X sort of nap. Adding “power” betrays a fear that, if I nap, I’ll appear lazy, that I’m not the type-A go-getter I’m supposed to be. But if it’s a POWER nap, I’m in the clear.

    Notice that the author of “Why you should really take a nap…” says nothing about “power” naps, only nap naps (though there is something about “Power Sleep”–aaaargh!).

    1. Ha. Yep, I believe James Maas (of Power Sleep) is credited with coining that term. I’ve always been annoyed by the term “cat nap.” I don’t have a good reason why, I like cats and I like naps and I like napping cats. The combination of words is just irksome somehow…

  4. There’s a whole heap of research on sleep and learning including a lot specifically on musicians.
    Like this study
    Sleeping on a new tune improves your performance, but if you learn two similar tunes, the benefit of sleep disappears!

    And sleeping with the new tune playing makes it stick even better

    So if you can somehow divide your daily practice with a nap, while listening to your pieces, you should be set!

    Same goes for learning a language.

  5. All bets are completely off if you have narcolepsy!!! Which is completely misunderstood. I can’t nap (I have only been able to actually nap – sleep – 3 times in the past 2 years), I can drink a gallon of coffee and still not wake up, and when I do sleep (narcoleptics are infamous insomniacs), I only ever have REM sleep. What looks like I just ‘fall asleep’ isn’t sleep at all. I am fully aware of everything that goes on around me. I just have no control of large motor function.

    In short – a total career killer.

    But I do remember back when I could nap, and I highly recommend it over caffeine!!! The dreams are much better at helping you sort out the tricky passages you have a hard time figuring out when you are wide awake and buzzed out on coffee.

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