I often start the day with great expectations. I’ll finish the syllabus for my upcoming Sleep and Dreams class. I’ll write a blog or two. I’ll put together a Case of the Month. I’ll clean out the closet that filled up with boxes when we moved last year and hasn’t been touched since then. I’ll brew up some potent coffee to stimulate my thinking. I’ll sit down in front of my computer. I’ll check the email. I’ll look at a few pictures of cats stumbling around on catnip. I’ll shuffle a few lecture slides around. I’m ready for a nap.
I try to mix things up during the day. I call this “intellectual cross training.” I read textbooks and articles, I put some graphics into a lecture, and then I go out for a walk with the dog. I put on my headphones and listen to some music (R.E.M., of course) while I’m walking. During my walks, I can feel my Broca’s area slowing down, the EEG decreasing in frequency and increasing in amplitude as the toxins wash out. Sound farfetched? Research shows that areas of the brain that are used extensively subsequently have “local changes” that are similar to N3 sleep.2
John B. Watson, the “father of behaviorism,” wrote in 1916: “But the stretch of time indicated by ‘waking moments’ is only a minor part of the twenty-four hours. Even during the time we are not asleep we are often abstracted, day-dreaming, letting moments go by in reverie.”1 I happen to be a big fan of reverie. But our society frowns on it.
We have great expectations of our workforce. According to one estimate, worker productivity has increased by 241.8 percent since 1948.3 Was there some evolutionary change in our ability to sustain attention during that time? If so, I missed out on that. After eight hours of herding second graders, elementary school teachers may have to put in a few hours of Uber driving in order to make ends meet. Continuous productivity is the new expectation. Waking hours are billable hours. During my years as an employee of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the employee manual warned me that I would be fired on the spot for sleeping on the job. There is more than a little irony here. One would think that the AASM, of all places, would not operate on the principle of “you snooze, you lose.”
The inability to maintain high-productivity full alertness during the day is blamed on insufficient sleep. We tell people to put down their cellphones, stop emailing and skip the catnip-woozy cat videos. The AASM says you need a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night. Now Dr. Daniel Gartenberg wants you to be in bed a minimum of eight and a half hours a night, and he has an app (cleverly called “sleep-2-Peak”) that will guide you to optimal performance the whole day long.4
We like to blame technology for insufficient sleep leading to reduced productivity. And yet, studies of “non-industrial” societies have not shown that eliminating electric lights and internet results in eight and a half hours of sleep per night. In fact, it’s closer to six and a half hours per night.5 Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a “noble savage” advocate who thinks that we should revert to our “natural” state of hunting squirrels and digging up tubers. I wouldn’t last a month without adequate food in the refrigerator. On the other hand, six and a half hours of sleep a night seems pretty good to me, supplemented by an occasional nap. Is there a problem with thinking six and a half hours of sleep should be sufficient? I think it’s a problem only if we expect continuous peak performance throughout the day.
As sleep professionals, we should not focus exclusively on the seven or eight or eight and a half hours of sleep during the night. We’re accumulating sleep debt! We’re all going to die from not enough sleep! Sure, if you are trying to get by on four hours of sleep a night, it’s probably not going to go well. And, admittedly, there are some occupations where focused attention is required for long periods of time. Nuclear power plant monitors. Supertanker ship captains. Long-haul truck drivers. Night time sleep technologists. We need to limit our expectations for these high-attention jobs. We already do this by restricting continuous work hours for airline pilots. But think about it the next time you need someone to get you home from the bar at 11 p.m. You call Uber. When the car comes, you look in the driver’s seat and see your granddaughter’s elementary school teacher. He’s putting in some extra hours trying to make ends meet.
I’d like to advocate for good expectations for our waking hours. Not everyone can be great, and I for one am willing to settle for good. So, the next time your boss catches you with your eyes closed at your desk, just say that you weren’t sleeping, you were in reverie. Resting some burnt-out part of your brain. Flushing out the toxins. Resetting the synapses.
- Watson, J. B. (1916). The psychology of wish fulfillment. Scientific Monthly, 3, 479–487.
- Hung CS; Sarasso S; Ferrarelli F; Riedner B; Ghilardi MF; Cirelli C; Tononi G. Local experience-dependent changes in the wake EEG after prolonged wakefulness. SLEEP 2013;36(1):59-72.
- Economic Policy Institute, 2017. Retrieved 6/30/18 from https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/
- Brunet, J. F., Dagenais, D., Therrien, M., Gartenberg, D., & Forest, G. Validation of sleep-2-Peak: A smartphone application that can detect fatigue-related changes in reaction times during sleep deprivation. Behavior Research Methods, 2013. DOI 10.3758/s13428016-0802-5
- Yetish G, Kaplan H, Gurven M, Wood B, Pontzer H, Manger P, Wilson C, McGregor R, Siegel JM. (2015). Natural sleep and its seasonal variations in three pre-industrial societies. Current Biology,25(21), 2862-2868. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.046