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…)