April 20, 2011

NYT: If you’re not sleeping 8 hours, you’re screwed. ~ Harris Mercer

Photo: nicholalexander

Here’s a cheap, not-at-all-easy high: skip two hours of sleep a night for two weeks. According to a 2003 study, it’s “the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk.”

I knew, of course, that 8 hours of sleep a night is the “recommended dose,” like getting the proper balance of carbs and proteins in your diet. But it’s the kind of thing everybody fudges; as long as you stay within healthy limits, or even—especially at a young age—push against those limits somewhat, it seems like you’re probably fine. And I also felt I could overcome any effects of sleeplessness through sheer force of will.

Photo: Jeremy Daccarett

Well, turns out I was wrong. But then again, most scientists were too, apparently.

Has most of what we’ve believed about sleep really come from a study where “sleepy subjects…may have sneaked in naps?” Apparently so, according to a popular new New York Times Magazine article—a fact that doesn’t give me all that much faith in the conclusions of sleep experts.

But the conventional wisdom has shifted thanks to a Cheney-esque, torturous study by David Dinges—not, apparently, a consultant at Guantanamo Bay—who wants us to know that if we’re missing even an hour a night, the “cognitive deficit” is affecting our lives and our work.

Those who had eight hours of sleep hardly had any attention lapses and no cognitive declines over the 14 days of the study. What was interesting was that those in the four- and six-hour groups had [alertness test] results that declined steadily with almost each passing day. Though the four-hour subjects performed far worse, the six-hour group also consistently fell off-task. By the sixth day, 25 percent of the six-hour group was falling asleep at the computer. And at the end of the study, they were lapsing fives times as much as they did the first day.

The six-hour subjects fared no better — steadily declining over the two weeks — on a test of working memory in which they had to remember numbers and symbols and substitute one for the other. The same was true for an addition-subtraction task that measures speed and accuracy. All told, by the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight.

Here’s the bottom line, for those of us who are workaholics trying to get as much done as we can: if you drop down to six or seven hours of sleep a night, within “five to seven days…you are trading time awake at the expense of performance.” (And no, Dinges says, we can’t make it up just on weekends.)

I’ve had extensive experience with sleep deprivation—at both happy and troubled times in my life.

Almost four years ago I was doing a job I loved, and sleeping very little: three or four hours a night during the week, sometimes trying to make up the deficit on weekends, and a lot less when I traveled.

If you had asked me then if I was suffering from a “cognitive deficit,” I would have said that my excitement about what I was doing and the pleasure I took in working with my colleagues, plus the absurd amounts of coffee I was drinking (I was notorious at my local Starbucks, and when I traveled the folks at the the local cafés would always come to know me within a couple days), more than balanced out the lack of sleep: I was more, not less, mentally engaged than somebody at a dull 9-to-5 job getting 8 hours a night.

Photo: Jsome1

Last year, on the other hand, I hated my job, and found most of my co-workers dull at the best of times and exasperating the rest of the time.

My lifestyle kept me up late, but the office opened at daybreak. I got supercharged on caffeine every morning, made it through an early check-in, and spent the rest of the day working like a zombie at my laptop. I was especially struck by the comparison the article drew between being sleep-deprived and being legally drunk because, though my tiredness often made me miserable, I would let my mind sink into a half-pleasurable dullness that really was an altered state of consciousness.

Was I less productive because of my lack of sleep? Though I often deliberately faded into sleepiness, I thought I could stay as sharp as ever if I was trying to. So am I in the “5 percent or even less who, for what researchers think may be genetic reasons, can maintain their performance with five or fewer hours of sleep?” Well, that sure would be nice. And I do always feel like I adjust to a low-sleep schedule.

But that’s another symptom of sleeplessness: the inability to discern if your performance has been affected.

Photo: corrieb

When I don’t get enough sleep, do I lose self-awareness as well? I’m considering asking friends if they think I seemed slower, or stupider, in the days when I wasn’t sleeping enough.

These days, I’m an intern at elephant journal, and I’m reliably getting close to eight hours a night. Could that be why my articles are so brilliant? Should I start cutting down on sleep, not tell my outspoken boss here at elej, and see if he picks up on my little “microsleeps” during editorial meetings?

I don’t think so. I’m not usually that good at forcing myself into adopting healthy habits, so I think I’ll keep taking advantage of my current lifestyle to get my recommended dose. Do I feel better than I used to in my days of sleepless nights? I’m not sure; I don’t feel worse.

But for the future, I’m more likely to shape my days around a job I enjoy and try to do well than around getting enough sleep—and if I can get a Dinges-approved eight hours a night, so much the better.


Harris Mercer is a new resident of Boulder and a native of New York City. He served as National High School Director with Students for Barack Obama at Obama for America throughout the Democratic presidential primaries in 2007 and 2008. At Bennington College in Bennington, VT he got to study both his obsessions: politics and Shakespeare. He can be reached at harrismercer [at] gmail [dot] com and wants you to go to http://whatthefuckhasobamadonesofar.com.

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