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Delving into sleep: time well spent?

Published: January 28, 2011
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

How many times during the course of a day do you hear someone behind you in class groan: “Ugh, I’m so tired!” Or better yet, how many times have you been the one complaining about how little sleep you got the night before. Look around you—everyone in college is in a state of perpetual exhaustion: most of us fall asleep the second our heads hits the pillows at night and many of us cannot wait until then, falling asleep in class, during meals or amidst conversation … it happens to the best of us.

I personally sleep three hours a night and I wish I could sleep even less than that. I just do not see the benefits of squandering away a third of our lifetimes in a bed, unconscious, unaware and unproductive. I always ask myself to think about all the fun things I could be doing instead of sleeping or all the things that I need to do that I haven’t yet done. There’s just no time to sleep when I have to read a book for class or talk to an old friend on the phone or develop an exciting new obsession (or for the less neurotic of us, a hobby).

The reality is that our lives are just too busy to sleep. As overachieving Brandeis students, we absolutely have to be a member of at least four clubs, take five classes and overall spread ourselves out too thin. And during the course of a day, we need to attend rehearsals or sports practices, do our homework at the latest possible hour, write papers, study for exams, organize our schedules, eat three meals per day, maintain proper hygiene (the hardest thing of all), manage to see our friends at least once a day, and squeeze in a few hours on Facebook or another website we use to avoid being actually productive.

But as you’ve heard, and probably said to many of your frantic, stressed-out friends, there are only 24 hours in the day. The earth just won’t rotate at an exponentially-slower rate so you can finish a paper on the history of the Ukraine that you should have done two weeks ago. So where do we cut time away from to extend the day? Sleep. Since the invention of the light bulb in 1880, the average sleep time for adults has been drastically reduced. The onset of electricity gave people the opportunity to work through the once dark and unproductive night. As a result, during the past century, people have spent less and less time sleeping.

And that’s the way it should be. I’m not arguing that sleep in its entirety is useless. That’s just not true. Sleep is crucial to consolidating memory, recharging the brain, lowering a person’s metabolic rate and energy consumption, slowing down circulation, repairing muscles and replacing chemicals. All that has been scientifically proven. But what scientists and doctors don’t seem to agree on is how much sleep you need each night. Some doctors claim eight hours is the minimum—some say six. Others assert you can get by with four or five hours per night. The truth is that it’s not the quantity of sleep that matters but the quality. Sleeping without interruption and sleeping in a quiet atmosphere and having a regular sleep routine can improve the quality of your sleep; and if you improve the quality of your sleep, you can decrease the quantity.

I personally function just fine with my three hours per night. Sure I feel tired every once in a while, but it passes as time goes by. And if you can sleep efficiently for three or four hours, that is a far more useful way to spend your time than sleeping for eight hours and still being tired. Many people that sleep for eight hours per night end up equally, if not more tired than people that sleep for a few hours per night.

And if you consider some of the most successful people in history, they have all thrived with a few hours of sleep per night. According to Science Base, Leonardo Da Vinci slept for one and a half hours per night, and no one ever caught him falling asleep on his canvas. Thomas Jefferson slept for two hours per night, and that didn’t stop him from drafting the Declaration of Independence or purchasing Louisiana from France. Ben Franklin also slept for two or three hours per night and he invented countless commodities, was a key Enlightenment thinker, an admired author, politician, scientist and the “First American.” And never once did he complain that he was tired (or at least he never said it aloud to the press).

Psychology professors and biology majors will argue that three hours of sleep per night does not allow us enough time to enter the deep, restorative third and fourth stages of sleep (including the crucial REM phase). During a period of time of diminishing sleep, however, your body will condition itself to enter REM faster, as a way of maximizing your sleep time. A key difference between a person who sleeps for four hours per night and a person who sleeps for nine hours per night is that the person who sleeps for nine hours spends a lot more time in Stages One and Two of sleep, which are light and not restorative.

In addition, not all animals need to sleep. Certain insect species like ants are able to survive without anything comparable to sleep. While humans do have some things in common with ants (ants are actually more rational decision-makers than humans are, an Arizona State University study shows), it may be a long time before humans are completely able to eliminate sleep from their daily lifestyle. There are actually ways to eliminate sleep right now, such as ingesting a brain hormone known as a “sleep replacement” drug, but none of them have been tested and could pose potential health risks. If a drug did come about, though, that would completely eliminate the need for sleep, it would be in all of our best interests to sign up for a dosage.

Imagine for a second a world without sleep. Life without sleep would be made 33 percent longer. People who live to be 60 years old right now are actually only living 40 years of their life (the other 20 years are spent in a state of dreary unawareness). But it doesn’t have to be that way. What if you could be alive for all 60 years? Or better yet, all 100 years? What if you could truly live life to the fullest? It’s definitely something to think about.

Friedrich Nietzche once said: “Sleeping is no small art. For its sake one must stay awake all day.” I think Nietzche would agree that sleeping is a waste of valuable time and if you can spend a few less hours sleeping per night, you can spend a few more hours doing something productive or fulfilling. We’re only in this world for a short period of time so why spend our lives asleep?

Remember one thing—nobody’s last words were: “I wish I slept more.”