TED Talk (Blog 10)

“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” – Said Everyone in 2013.

How do we think about sleep in the 21st century? Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist, says we treat sleep as the enemy, like an illness, and I completely agree with him.

For some odd reason, society has pushed this idea that success, wealth, and productivity are only possible when you spend more hours of the day working towards these things, and that sleep is a waste of time because we can’t check anything off our “to-do” lists while we are asleep. This is incredibly sad and backwards, because our brains NEED sleep! Sleep isn’t a luxury or a way of showing laziness, because our brains physically require sleep to function. (There is a reason why we all complain about being “so tired” and it’s not because we need more coffee…)

Foster outlines 2 popular theories related to the necessity of sleep:

Restoration is the idea that we need sleep in order to restore the hormones and other necessities our brain provides us during the day. Some genes are actually only turned on during sleep and these genes are specifically made for restoration purposes, thus showing that sleep is vital for restoring ourselves.

This makes sense, but Foster is most fond of the brain function theory:

At time 7:00 minutes in the talk, he describes important parts of this theory in that the ability to learn and totally absorb a task is “smashed” by sleep deprivation because memory consolidation is finalized only during sleep. Even more interesting, is the idea that our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is increased 3x by sleep because neural connections in the brain are linked and strengthened during sleep.

Furthermore, Russell explains the excitement surrounding the new discoveries with neuroscience and sleep. He has been a part of recent studies that prove an undeniable connection between lack of sleep (and sleep disorders) and mental illness. These new discoveries will hopefully push doctors and scientists to view sleep as an area to focus on in order to prevent and cure mental illnesses in patients everywhere.

He states that it is clear we sleep for multiple different functions and reasons, but the critical thing to realize is that if you don’t sleep, you aren’t reaching your full potential. Obviously, multiple sectors of society are sleep deprived (definitely teenagers and college students) and it is a travesty that society and organizations don’t promote the importance of sleep more.


The year before I went to boarding school, my school installed a policy to push all classes back to start so that students could potentially get one more hour of sleep a night. After analyzing the results,

Dr. Maas (a Psychology Professor at Cornell University) gave a summary of the results:

“Grades rose to a record winter-term high. Athletic records improved. Seventeen percent more hot breakfasts were consumed. Teachers reported that students showed increased alertness, readiness to engage, and better mood in morning classes. Visits to the health center were also down 20 percent in a year when other schools reported substantial increases in the flu and colds.” (NY Times Article).

This study and Foster’s points pose an interesting topic for society to ponder and discuss… Would overall crime rates decrease and health of our nation increase if people felt sleep was crucial to success? Have we deprived ourselves of sleep because we all think staying up later and waking up earlier will put us that much further ahead overall in life? Or are we all just procrastinators that love the thrill of staying up late?

(Of course I am finishing writing circa 12:15 am… and the irony is really getting to me…)

9 thoughts on ““I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” – Said Everyone in 2013.

  1. The study that was conducted at your school is astounding. I could only imagine what the results would be if a similar experiment was done at Bucknell. When trying to make enough time to do everything a busy college student or employee has to do in a day, sleep is often the first thing to go. But your TED Talk shows that sleep actually helps us accomplish more fully those tasks that we have at hand when we are awake.

  2. I have read a bunch of articles about the benefits of sleep, and I have come to really value my sleep. Between class, school, and soccer, sleep is extremely important for me to get through the day. My favorite part of the day is nap time. Both my roommate and I take a nap at a pretty consistent time every day. Without my nap, I would not be able to function.

  3. This is something that as high school students we talked about all the time! It didn’t make sense to us why the elementary and middle schools started so much later than we did, but little kids were the ones wound up and active in the mornings. I have heard of school’s implementing this policy and it is really cool that your school did it. It makes sense and I think that are definitely large benefits to be reaped from it. I think this would results in generally happier students which is certainly a factor in reducing some of the things you brought up at the end of your post.

  4. I really like the issue you brought up because I think its 100% true, and its sad because it seems like such a simple fundamental thing. People often times find it insane that I always get at least 8 hours of sleep a night, but really I could never imagine pulling an allnighter. Great blog!

  5. It is amazing that our ability to solve complex problem is 3x more when we have enough sleep. This is a huge improvement. I have heard that its good to take short naps in between studying so that your brain can process the information. I know that I need a good amount of sleep every night and that without it I cannot concentrate or function as well.

    • I did feel that the change resulted in an increase in my overall sleep because no matter how hard I tried, I always found myself staying up until 1 AM (when the internet shut off) doing my homework. I would then go to sleep, but was able to get more sleep because my first class did not start until after 8! All the students were very appreciative of this change and also made an effort to get in bed earlier.

  6. I love to hear this science backing up sleep as it gives me an excuse for wanting to go to bed early and sleep in when I can. It is a very valuable lesson even for college students to know. Sometimes we may think that the best thing to do before an exam is pull that all nighter and study as much as we can, but in reality that is not helping us actually learn the material.

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