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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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September 17 2015

Why These 10 Famous Thinkers Napped

By Mark Sisson
29 Comments

A few months ago, I wrote a guide to napping that included how, why, and when to flop down for a spell. That wasn’t a random throwaway post. It was the first salvo in a new war. I’m on a mission to legitimize the nap, to destigmatize the siesta for the average working human. And it’s not a selfish thing, because I can already pretty much take a nap whenever I want. I’m concerned about you. In a chronically sleep-deprived population such as ours, a 45 minute foray into the land of dreams can rejuvenate the mind, make up for sleep debt, and make us healthier and happier. Yet those who nap —or simply want to nap — often feel guilty about it, even if they have an hour or two to spare and are falling asleep at their desks. Perhaps it’ll make you feel better to know that some of the world’s greatest thinkers considered naps to be an integral part of their day — and their success.

Let’s look at a few of them:

Salvador Dalí

Dalí didn’t nap to recover lost sleep or fight physical fatigue. He napped for insight and to stimulate his creativity. His naps were briefer than brief, millisecond-long glimpses of dreamspace from which he’d emerge with new ideas, visions, and solutions. Dalí describes his method in 50 Secrets of Magic Craftmanship. To ensure his nap didn’t extend into true slumber, Dalí would sit upright in a chair (“preferably of Spanish style”), head tilted back and resting in “a supineness of complete relaxation,” wrists lubricated in lavender oil to induce further relaxation, a heavy metal key loosely dangling between his fingers and poised above a plate. When sleep fell, the key would drop and strike the plate, waking Dalí before he could progress past a quarter second of sleep. This was the “sleeping without sleeping,” the slumber with a key, the hypnagogic nap, and, according to Dalí, the secret to his success. You can squeeze a quarter second in, can’t you?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’m not sure if Coleridge was a habitual napper, but he took what might be the most famous nap in English literature. After a three-hour snooze that may or may not have been aided and abetted by a significant draught off the opium pipe, Coleridge awoke in a creative frenzy, stumbled over to his writing station, and penned the dreamy “Kubla Khan.” The poem manages to capture the intangible. What Coleridge discovered is that if you can seize the thread of the dream immediately upon waking and hold on, you can produce some interesting material. Naps just work better for this, for a couple reasons. It’s daytime, and you can see what you’re doing (and writing). It’s a lighter sleep, so you’re not stumbling around in a daze wiping sleep from your eyes at 2 in the morning.

If you’re a fan of Kubla Khan, check out Coleridge’s much longer “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I love that one.

Thomas Edison

In a kind of ironic foreshadowing of what his most famous invention would do to the sleep hygiene of the industrialized world, Thomas Edison didn’t really sleep much at night. Three or four hours was about all he could manage with his workload and impressive to-do list hanging over him. Besides, he thought sleep was a waste of time, an archaic holdover from the caveman days. But he also couldn’t escape it. So to satisfy the base physiological needs of his unfortunate meat body, he power napped during the day. These “dips into oblivion” were a source of guilt for Edison, but they also allowed him to work 18-20 hour days. Edison also used the quarter-second Dalí-esque naps to inspire creativity and overcome ruts, only he used a handful of ball bearings that would clatter to the floor and wake him.

Margaret Thatcher

Much is made of the Iron Lady’s disregard for sleep. During her tenure as Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher slept just 4-5 hours a night and transformed British politics. But before you go and try that at home, get your genes sequenced. Thatcher had a rare genetic variant that allowed her to thrive on less sleep than the average person. And even then she needed daily naps. The Iron Lady ordained that she was not to be disturbed between 2:30 and 3:30 every afternoon, so vital was her nap time.

Albert Einstein

Einstein slept 10 hours a night, but he also napped frequently throughout the day. How’d he get anything done? His naps were of the micro variety, lasting mere seconds, and were designed not to replace sleep but to boost creativity. What’s remarkable about Einstein’s use of the hypnagogic nap is that, unlike Dalí and other enthusiasts who used it to offer insight into the artistic process, he spent his quarter second in that in-between state to solve intractable physics problems. We have the misguided notion that scientists aren’t creative, that they follow rote, linear processes to arrive at their destinations. Creativity is creativity, and it seems that Einstein was able to use the irrational half-dream, half-wake mindspace to great effect.

Leonardo da Vinci

If you gave him a couple months to acclimate and the latest iPhone, Leonardo da Vinci would fit right into Silicon Valley biohacking circles. He created the first analog computer, which also happened to be a robot lion. He was obsessed with optimizing his productivity, going so far as to decry those who, rather than “work in such wise as that after death [they] mayst retain a resemblance to perfect life,” instead “art in sleep so like to the hapless dead.” His work-life balance was terrible. And to make it all possible, he was a master sleep hacker, taking a twenty to thirty minute nap every four hours.

John F. Kennedy

John Fitzgerald Kennedy is widely regarded as one of the coolest presidents. He was a war hero and a handsome fashion icon along with his almost-as-famous wife Jackie, and he managed to avoid nuclear war during a tense standoff with the Soviet Union. But he also suffered from crippling back pain and lifelong colitis (I bet going Primal would have done wonders) which, coupled with the already considerable responsibilities inherent to the office and his dependency on strong pain meds, made daily naps a requirement for normal function. For two hours every afternoon, he and Jackie would retire to his suite for a nap, with strict orders that he was not to be disturbed for any reason. JFK preferred silent darkness (blinds drawn, zero disturbances). Between that and the colitis, he totally would have dug the PB.

Winston Churchill

An intense man, Churchill coined the term “power nap.” He regarded a nap between lunch and dinner as absolutely necessary for maintaining the kind of clear thinking he employed during World War 2, and always made certain to get to bed as early as possible after lunch. In The Gathering Storm, Churchill lays out his case for the midday nap: “Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without that refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.” Yeah, I’d say that a 16-hour workday calls for at least a brief nap in the middle.

Lyndon B. Johnson

LBJ was a dedicated napper. After assuming the presidency and unveiling an ambitious plan that included civil rights, a war on poverty (and on Vietnam, unfortunately), and tax cuts, he enacted double-days. He’d get up at 7, work till 2 PM, nap till 4, have dinner, and work through the night until 1 or 2 in the morning. Without that 2 o’clock nap, he would have been a wreck. During the thick of the Vietnam War, the tormented Johnson often went with no sleep but a nap or two during the day. He napped during (other people’s) speeches, held cabinet meetings in bed and boxer shorts during his naps, and when he had the heart attack that ultimately killed him, he was napping at his Dallas ranch home.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Perhaps the most influential First Lady of all time (until Claire Underwood, of course), Eleanor Roosevelt was no idle housewife. She sat on committees, gave speeches, acted as US diplomat, and even helped form the United Nations. And before every speech or public talk she gave, Roosevelt would try to sneak in a nap to refresh her mind and body, prepare her for the task ahead, and boost energy.

Whether you like or dislike their art, writing, politics, performance in office, or inventions, you’ve got to admit that these 10 people managed to accomplish far more than most people ever do. And they did it while maintaining a consistent, daily napping habit. If these folks managed to do what they did while napping every day, what’s stopping you?

I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, so let’s hear about it down below. Thanks for reading, everyone!

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29 thoughts on “Why These 10 Famous Thinkers Napped”

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  1. The evidence for Leonardo da Vinci and polyphasic sleep is sketchy! When I was a graduate student teaching a biopsychology course, I lectured on sleep. Being interested in the idea of polyphasic sleep, I wanted to get original source material for some of the claims.

    The reference to Leonardo da Vinci led me to a chapter in a slim (academic) book. Imagine my surprise when the author of the chapter wrote in a footnote that he learned about da Vinci’s sleep habits from a medium who had channeled da Vinci.

    If anyone can locate one (or more) reliable source about da Vinci and polyphasic sleep, I’d like to know about it.

  2. Groktimus Primal, you always make me laugh, haha so thank you for that!

    Napping has been instrumental in helping my clients recover from adrenal fatigue. At a certain point you just need to shut down and rest for a while.

    The sympathetic dominant, go go go culture needs naps even MORE than the times that these great nappers lived through!

  3. Interesting post. I wonder how common that gene variant is that allows better function on less sleep.

    I’ve often tried napping myself but I can never seem to get to sleep during daylight hours. However, on a couple of times when I’ve been ill I was able to nap easily. Probably something in that related to the body’s need for recovery.

    Of course the country most famous for the afternoon nap is Spain, with much of the Spanish population indulging in a short siesta every afternoon.

    “The siesta habit has recently been associated with a 37 percent reduction in coronary mortality, possibly due to reduced cardiovascular stress mediated by daytime sleep” (Study: http://buff.ly/1Ohgizh).

    Not a bad benefit!

    I had a quick look into this topic for more information and saw that some scientists have likened a 1-hour power nap to a full night’s sleep, but again only in people with specific genes. Would be nice to be one of those people wouldn’t it?!

  4. I am inspired to nap more often and i just did so on my train commute home from work haha 🙂

  5. Sometimes that small 20-minute nap is all you need to get revitalized. It’s great!

  6. I used to always require a nap on weekends. Then I got rid of the toast and cereal and haven’t had that fuel crisis of a mandatory mid-day nap. I wonder how many of these great nappers were just glucose sensitive.

  7. Naps are truly one of life’s greatest pleasures, and as a cat owner I always have an accomplice when I day-snooze. In fact, I could go for a nap right now. Zzzzz.

  8. Though I’ve never been good at napping myself, I so appreciate this post–both as a counter to the “must be constantly busy to be productive and effective” myth that is so pervasive these days…and as a quirky, fun exploration of the sleeping habits of well-known characters from history.

    Looking forward to sharing it with a client of mine who does best with daily afternoon naps…yet feels lingering guilt around taking them due to the strong hold of cultural beliefs.

  9. I have a hard time with a nap. When I wake up I feel disoriented and very groggy almost sick. It takes me a while to get going again.

    Am I doing something wrong??

    1. Are you waking up too quickly maybe? Shocking the nervous system into a sympathetic state after it’s parasympathic slumber? Try rolling over onto your right side (because the heart is on the left, you want to treat it gently), and breathe with awareness for a few breath cycles before coming back to sitting. Then gradually increasing the length of the inhale to open the lungs and increase the oxygen supply to your organs, body, brain. Transition slowly back into waking life. That might do it. I hope it helps!

    2. No, that happens to me… , it can take me a good 15 – 30 minutes to fully awake from the nap; and sometimes I wonder if it was worth it; but it always is; especially if I am extending my day; I’m more focused and reinvigorated after I come out of the haze.

      It also helps me the next day compared to getting less hours without the nap.

      1. Always felt worse after a nap and then can’t sleep at night. Since going Primal and getting great sleep every day of my life, naps are useless to me.

    3. Keep your nap short. You’ll hit REM at around 45 mins in. If you wake up in deep sleep, you’ll be groggy. Twenty minutes is the sweet spot. Or else sleep until you finish a cycle and don’t wake up in the middle of a dream.

    4. That is my experience as well, I wake up groggy and definitely not refreshed!

    5. A twenty minute nap and I feel great but anything longer and I wake groggy and disorientated. That said I rarely have the need to nap now that I am primal.

  10. Love the micro-nap. Love that lie-on-the-couch-and-shut-my-eyes and then all of a sudden I’m in that space between asleep and awake. The mind drifts off, the unconscious images drift for a moment – and then I’m pulled back to consciousness in an instant. Feeling refreshed. Magic. It’s the place where a good Yoga Nidra will take you. Apart from that, an after lunch nap is one of our weekend rituals. Rarely missed, always appreciated.
    Fascinating article! Bring on the Nap (R)evolution!

  11. When successful people extol the virtues of naps, it’s no wonder why those that hold power over us (middle management) deny them to us!

  12. One might argue that the term “idle housewife” should be put in the same category as “healthy whole grains” and “artery-clogging fats.”

  13. I’m all for naps and regenerating, but I’m not understanding the “seconds”, and waking yourself up just exactly as you fall asleep.
    Seems it would drive someone crazy and whatever benefit is too quickly cut short, too brief.
    Maybe someone more creative than I am could better explain it.
    You would have to be exhausted to immediately fall into a useful dream sleep, and benefit from … half a second.
    That’s ONE reason I’m not a genius inventor or world class artist I guess 🙂

    1. The micronapping is not for resting and refreshing yourself, but for boosting creativity by getting the mind to drift off into a dreamstate. When dreaming, the mind is more open to “out of the box” thinking, taking odd leaps, and coming to conclusions you wouldn’t even consider while awake. And when you wake up in the middle of this dream state, it tends to bleed over into waking life a little bit.
      I’m not clear on how you would get into a dream state within seconds of falling asleep, but it seemed to work for these guys 🙂

  14. I am not a good day time sleeper but I am always amazed by the refreshing qualities of a short day time, IF I manage to fall asleep that is! Thanks for another great posts!

  15. The article I linked to in my name below states that Margaret Thatcher suffered a series of mini-strokes that went unnoticed for years, prior to her diagnosis of dementia, which she suffered from for the last 12 years of her life.

    Whatever you may think of her, she’s NOT a good model for sound neurological health, although I’m sure her choices made sense for the life she chose to live. But most of us are not that driven, and nor will me make such an impact on the world.

    I’ve met people who actually knew her, some of them supported her politics (so no axe to grind) and they told me she often seemed utterly exhausted, and I’ve also heard that that she drank, steadily and without visible intoxication, throughout most of the day for at least some of her tenure as British Prime Minister, which could have effects on her ability to enter REM sleep, and is also associated with higher rates of dementia in women.

    Regardless of genetics, she seems to have burned herself out and paid a horrible price for it, so I question whether her sleep habits are something we should imitate, if we can avoid it.

  16. I think napping is for those with an already unhealthy lifestyle to cope with some of the negative effects of irregular/too short sleeping patterns, overworking, bad life/work-balance and bad sugar/carb-loaded eating habits. Whenever I need a nap these days it is an alarm-signal for me and I know I’ve done something wrong.

  17. I was a long haul truck driver for 16 years and for me napping was an essential tool to deal with the often crazy hours. Other drivers no doubt relied on “little white pills” to get them down the road but I refused to kill myself for the job.

    Usually, depending on the time available, I would choose between a nap of either less than 45 minutes (from which I could return to full functioning rapidly) or over 2 hours with at least 30 minutes to get back up to speed before I hit the road.

    My ace in the hole though, when I was fading but on a tight schedule, was a 10 minute or so nap which I referred to as “rounding up the bits and pieces:”
    1/ I would lay on my back, cover my eyes with a rolled up t-shirt, and lace my fingers behind my head with my thumbs plugging my ears.
    2/ I would breath slowly and evenly and focus my attention on the tips of my toes. Yeah, I know..weird!
    3/ I would then wait for my thoughts to become nonsensical. There was always a point when I would say to myself “yup, those are some crazy thoughts”, and I would wake up feeling fresh and alert and be good for a few more hours of driving.