All entries for Monday 10 January 2005

January 10, 2005

Sleep – Are you getting enough?

For many of us, sleep is something that robs us of time which could be spending working, socialising or simply watching television. Why sleep for 9–10 hours each night, when 5 or 6 is enough to ensure the following day isnít spent hallucinating? For many of us, achieving the rough benchmark of 8 hours sleep would mean going to bed at around midnight each day. Given the demands placed on our time from assignments, miscellaneous hobbies and nightly excursions to the union, a 12am bedtime may appear more suited to juveniles.

Bad sleeping habits may come at the cost of our general health and our productivity. Within the university environment, our every day actions are geared towards acquiring and retaining knowledge. Depriving ourselves of valuable hours in bed renders us unable to achieve such ends effectively. Indeed, the problem runs deeper than the tendency to drift in and out of consciousness during lectures.

An article by Dr Piotr Wozniak, a memory and learning specialist states the following:

Yet some dramatic facts related to sleep deprivation slowly come into light. Each year sleep disorders add $16 billion to national health-care costs (e.g. by contributing to high blood pressure and heart disease). That does not include accidents and lost productivity at work! For this, the National Commission on Sleep Disorders estimates that sleep deprivation costs $150 billion a year in higher stress and reduced workplace productivity (US, 1999). 40% of truck accidents are attributable to fatigue and drowsiness, and there is an 800% increase in single vehicle commercial truck accidents between midnight and 8 am. Major industrial disasters have been attributed to sleep deprivation (among these, at least in part, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the gas leak at Bhopal, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill).
It has been known since the 1920s that sleep improves recall in learning. However, only recently, research by Dr Robert Stickgold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts Mental Health Center, has made international headlines. Dr Stickgold demonstrated a fact that has long been known yet little appreciated: sleep is necessary for learning! Without sleep we reduce the retention of facts we have learned the previous day (and not only). Studying nights before an exam may be sufficient for passing the exam, yet it will leave few useful traces in long-term memory. The exam on its own replaces knowledge as the main purpose of studying!

ĎBut I can function perfectly well with only 5 hours sleep!í you may be saying. As in most cases where people must judge their capabilities you probably overestimate yourself. Sure you can function, but itís almost certain that youíre not as alert and effective as you could be. Are the potential gains in our mental state worth the investment in sleep of an extra few hours each day? Itís certainly worth finding out for yourself.

Further reading:

Dream On: Sleep in the 24/7 Society
A publication from influential UK think tank, DEMOS.

Good Sleep, Good Learning, Good Life – Dr Piotr Wozniak


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