Debunked: ‘Resting Is as Good as Sleeping’

By Mario Esposito
Last Updated: August 14, 2018

Imagine waiting for an important telephone call while you’re exhausted or jet lagged, or being at an office with a “no naps” policy after burning the midnight oil. Or any situation where you couldn’t sleep but sorely needed the relief that comes with it. Is simply resting enough?

What’s being debunked here is the idea that sleeping is equal to resting in a state described as quiet wakefulness. Many sleep disorders would not exist if this myth were true. Of course, sleeping and quiet wakefulness are not interchangeable; but that does not mean that quiet wakefulness is not without benefits.

A woman lying on a bed, preparing for quiet wakefulness

What Is Quiet Wakefulness?

When you’re intentionally trying to get some rest by lying down—or setting yourself in an similarly relaxed position—with your eyes shut and your mind clear and unoccupied, you are experiencing quiet wakefulness. This allows your physical body to rest, as you should ideally be experiencing little to no movement. Your mind, while still conscious, is likewise free from the responsibility of focusing on a task or maintaining awareness of what’s going on in the outside world. Think of quiet wakefulness as rest and relaxation magnified.

Quiet wakefulness is said to help with mood and stress management, as well as encourage a rise in productivity. Similar to the benefits of taking a power nap, quiet wakefulness results in increased alertness, motivation and clarity of thought.

How Is Quiet Wakefulness Different from Sleep?

Yes, we compared the benefits of quiet wakefulness to the benefits of a short daytime nap. How is it any different from actual sleep? To answer that, we need to look at the benefits we get from sleep alone. While quiet wakefulness is a great way to get some rest—particularly the physical kind—it’s not completely able to provide a foundation for the kind of all-out repair and regeneration your body needs regularly.

Here’s what happens when you’re asleep: Neuron activity goes down, and in some stages of sleep it even goes completely silent. When you’re conscious, even with a clear mind your brain is still taking in information and processing them. It is not truly at rest. During sleep, we get a cognitive boost that we don’t get with quiet wakefulness. The brain uses this time to process memories and recharge, increasing our capacity to remember and learn new information and skills while awake. The rest of the body benefits, too; cell repair happens when we’re in dreamland, as well as the release of important hormones that regulate appetite and stimulate growth.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Sleep is essential and cannot be replaced. Quiet wakefulness is good in a pinch, but not good at night when you are actually trying to get some shuteye.

By no means are we completely dismissing quiet wakefulness, though! Both actual sleep and short periods of rest have a place in a normal and healthy lifestyle. When you’re running out of steam—be it from running too many errands back to back, studying for three exams in the space of one afternoon, or simply the tedium of your daily work responsibilities—it’s better to take a short break than to push yourself so hard that you run the risk of breaking down. Quiet wakefulness or meditation are great ways to relax without being unable to bounce back into what you’re doing quickly if needed; but if you can manage it, a daytime nap is probably better for you.