I slept 11 hours last night, and I feel great. Morpheus is a god indeed.
His father, Hypnos, god of sleep, gets a bad rap. It doesn’t help that he promotes opium as a soporific in a world that criminalizes and demonizes illegal drug use. Now that his progeny are supposedly hypnotizing people in basketball arenas around the country, “making” them do ridiculous things that pass for halftime entertainment, his creds are completely shot. His son Morpheus, the god of dreams, on the other hand, lends his name to the drug morphine that relieves your agony when you go to the ER with kidney stones, or as you lie dying with cancer.
It turns out that Morpheus’ elevation over Hypnos makes sense. It’s not just sleep, but REM sleep, during which we dream, that is the most crucial function for our brains. As the night goes on, your REM cycles lengthen with each one, such that at the end of an 8-hour night sleep, the proportion of REM to non-REM sleep is much greater than during the first cycles. That means if you get 4 hours of sleep, you don’t get half the REM you get with 8 hours—you get much less than half.
Americans are chronically sleep deprived. A hundred years ago, humans averaged about ten hours of sleep per night. What changed? Primarily, electricity. Artificial lighting (including that from TVs, computers, and electronic gadgets) makes it possible for us to completely ignore the natural indications of when it’s night and when it’s day—and thus when we should be sleeping. Our modern pace of life results in it being very common for people to get 6-7 hours of sleep per night, a 30-40% reduction from a century ago! And we are not doing well.
For example, I heard on yesterday’s NPR Science Friday that 250,000 people fall asleep at the wheel every day. How could that be? It seems like an absurdly high number, but on looking into it I found the statistic widely quoted. One of the people mentioning it was Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I would think he’d know what he’s talking about. Not everyone who falls asleep at the wheel crashes into a ditch, or into another car. They may fall into a microsleep, then awaken in time to avoid any danger. Many get home with no incident, just like drunk drivers. Drowsy driving is an epidemic—one that fortunately is getting more and more attention as reporting on sleep research in the general media increases.
I used to feel guilty about the fact that I seemed to need more sleep than most people. I feel best if I get 9 hours, can function just ok on 7 ½, and am essentially a zombie on 6. Not only am I not alert and able to concentrate well, but I also have to fight through a headache and nausea to do whatever I’m doing. I am very grateful that in 2003, I found myself at the National Institute for the Teaching of Psychology with The Professor. I primarily went because it was held in Florida in January, but the keynote speaker looked interesting, so I attended that presentation. I’m so glad I did! Dr. Jim Maas, a noted sleep researcher who retired from Cornell University in 2011 after over 40 years of effort on the topic, talked about the state of the research at that time and all they had learned about the damaging effects of sleep deprivation. He is author of Power Sleep, a 1998 book written for the popular market. It is still worth reading, even though I’m sure some of the research in it could be updated.
I now think of myself not as needing more than most people, but simply as being much more sensitive to sleep deprivation than everyone one else who needs 8-9 hours but gets 6-7 (or less). I try to schedule at least one day a week when I can sleep as long as I need to in the morning in order to awaken without setting an alarm. I never feel guilty if I sleep 9, 10, or 11 hours. I stay fairly well rested almost all the time. Jim Maas changed my life.
If you’re at all interested in this topic, I encourage you to read this USA Today special section on what research has discovered about sleep’s relationship to emotional stability, academic achievement, weight gain, Alzheimer’s, driving safety, and athletic performance. There is essentially no aspect of life that isn’t affected by what goes on between your ears when your head’s on that pillow.
I challenge you this week to arrange your schedule in such a way that you get an extra hour of sleep per night. If you can’t do it every night, try three or four. Leave the smartphone and the laptop in the other room. If you have a TV in the bedroom, leave it off that evening. Give more sleep a shot, and see what it can add to your quality of life before you shuffle off this mortal coil.