Saturday, February 26, 2011

On Sleep (Part One)

Actually, yes...you DO!  See below...


I have a double confession to make:


1. I love sleep.

2. I take a nap just about every day (and have for many years).


I know quite a few people who can get by just fine with 4-6 hours of sleep a night. I am not even close to being one of these lucky folks. I have been “blessed” with a body that needs about 10 hours a night in order to not get tired the next day. But since I am rarely ever able to get that much sleep, I am forced to take naps to get through most days.

My work schedule and activity load generally only allow me to average about 6 – 7 hours of sleep per night in a typical week. As a result, I spend most of my time feeling fatigued. By Friday evening, I am barely able to move. I like to say that I suffer from a condition that I only half-jokingly refer to as “CSD”…Cumulative Sleep Deprivation.

Given all this, it will not surprise you to know that I have been very interested in sleep research for all of my adult life. So when my dear friend Fr. Anthony Perkins, pastor of St. Michael Ukranian Orthodox Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, mentioned a 60 Minutes story about recent study that confirmed the importance of sleep, I immediately read the story. For the most part, the story only confirmed things that I had either already read or learned from experience. But I learned a few new things. In summary, getting enough sleep is even more important than I had previously thought.

In the rest of this post, I will summarize the 60 minutes segment for you, including direct quotations (in bold print) of the parts I found most interesting. I hope that you will find it as interesting and beneficial as I did.

(Note: The segment was originally broadcast on March 13, 2008. It was updated on June 12, 2008. The correspondent was Lesley Stahl.)


Human beings spend on average one third of our lives asleep. We know we need to sleep, but most of us have never really given a whole lot of thought to why.

Why do we spend seven or eight hours a night immobile and unconscious? What really happens inside our brains and bodies while we're sleeping?

The segment begins by mentioning that several new studies are suggesting that sleep does more for us than rest our bodies.

One thing that's clear, says Walker [Matthew Walker, the director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley], is that sleep is critical. In a series of studies done back in the 1980s, rats were kept awake indefinitely. After just five days, they started dying.

Walker says they started dying from sleep deprivation. "In fact, sleep is as essential as food because they will die just about as quick from food deprivation as sleep deprivation. So, it's that necessary," he says.

Evolutionary biologists find sleep a puzzling thing, because sleep renders animals totally immobile and unconscious, helpless against predators. Given this, it seems that evolving animals would have developed the ability to not need sleep, rather than to depend upon it.

The segment then addresses the relationship between sleep and learning. In a recent study, Walker taught a new task to 400 study subjects. Those who were taught the skill at night and then had to perform it again the next morning after a good night’s sleep did much better than those who did not get to sleep between attempts.

"So, it seems to be that practice does not quite make perfect; it’s practice with a night of sleep that makes perfect," Walker says. "It's this odd notion that we all think in Western civilization that we have to stay awake to get more done. And I think that's simply not true. In fact, I think if you have a good night of sleep, what you'll find is that you can get more done than if you simply stay awake."

But what if you do sleep, just not enough? Walker did another study in which he limited some subjects to only 4 hours of sleep a night then gave them a test. Here he summarizes the results:

"Well, the first finding, and it stunned us, was there's a cumulative impairment that develops in your ability to think fast, to react quickly, to remember things. And it starts right away," Dinges says. "A single night at four hours or five hours or even six, can in most people, begin to show affects in your attention and your memory and the speed with which you think. A second night it gets worse. A third night worse. Each day adds an additional burden or deficit to your cognitive ability."

Sounds like “Cumulative Sleep Deprivation” to me (in fact, Walker uses a similar term earlier in the segment). The segment then goes on to say that all of the things people try to do to compensate for inadequate sleep, such as drinking caffeine, slapping themselves, keeping the air cool in your car, singing, and so on, do not really solve the problem. A large number of traffic and other accidents each year are tied to inadequate sleep. Dr. David Dinges, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that inadequate sleep may have contributed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Chernobyl, the Three Mile Island disaster and the 2003 Staten Island ferry crash.

60 Minutes did a little research and found that The Exxon Valdez spill happened after midnight with a man at the helm who'd slept only four hours the night before; Chernobyl and Three Mile Island also occurred late at night and involved human error. And the assistant captain who crashed the Staten Island ferry into a pier, killing 11, admitted that he felt exhausted before the accident.

For some reason, in the United States at least, needing sleep is seen by many people (and I would argue perhaps by the culture as a whole) as a weakness, and not sleeping much is seen as a good thing. It seems that in many people’s eyes, admitting you need a lot of sleep is just a step above admitting you need drugs or great amounts of alcohol to get by.

To be continued...

1 comment:

Dennis Justison said...

This post was SO interesting. I am constantly pushing myself to sleep less. I started back in college last January and I can really notice when I have pushed too much. My philosophy professor makes so much more sense when I get enough sleep. Perhaps it is time to turn over a new leaf and just roll over when the alarm goes off tomorrow! Peace to all.