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Kipping at your desk is highly productive, say boffins

'The hippocampus is like an email inbox'

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Splendid news for those among us who occasionally wake up with a snort at our desks, hastily wiping drool off our chins and looking around guiltily. Boffins have annouced that a brief zizz during the day enhances performance and makes people more efficient and productive.

According to Matthew Walker, a trick-cyclist out of UC Berkeley in California, your hippocampus - a section of brain involved in storing "fact-based memories" - needs to process and file away new information every so often, and it needs you to be asleep to do this.

"It's as though the e-mail inbox in your hippocampus is full and, until you sleep and clear out those fact e-mails, you're not going to receive any more mail. It's just going to bounce until you sleep and move it into another folder," Walker said.

The prof and his colleagues say they have shown this by a recent study in which they compared two groups and their performance in "rigorous learning tasks" designed to top up the hippocampus with new info. Both groups showed similar performance in such a task undertaken just before lunch.

Then, however, in midafternoon, one group had a restorative snooze during which their hippocampi cleared their freight of facts away (into the prefrontal cortex, thought by Walker and his crew to have more storage space). The second group remained awake.

After nap-time was over the two groups tackled another task, and this time the advantage was clear. Brains refreshed, the team which had copped a swift 40 winks broached a positive barrel of whup-ass on those who had mindlessly stayed awake in the spirit of modern corporate life.

Walker says that the brain email filing activity happens during a previously poorly-understood phase of kipping known as Stage 2 non-REM sleep, which takes place between deep sleep (non-REM) and the dream state known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM). Previously, schlaf scientists hadn't been sure what this kind of sleep was for, but Walker thinks it has to be about hippocampus clearout.

"I can't imagine Mother Nature would have us spend 50 percent of the night going from one sleep stage to another for no reason," says the prof. "Sleep is sophisticated. It acts locally to give us what we need."

He figures now to try and tie this together with older people's loss of sleep and well-documented brain conditions such as Alzheimer's.

Meanwhile, bosses up and down the land take note: that employee slumped across his or her desk after lunch in a pool of spittle is actually to be praised for enhancing their productivity and perhaps supplied with a pillow, not stigmatised as an idle freeloader. ®

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