Optimize your life #11 – A case for a good night’s sleep

Let me just say this up front.  I love sleep.  Not too much, not too little.  Just a good eight hours of sleep a day.  I don't like forcing myself awake and it really hurts when I do it.

But let's get to the point.  Sleep is important.  And you've heard it a million times.  By now, if you haven't been living in a cave, you've surely read the stories about how studies have shown that naps just after lunch boost productivity tremendously.  Or that driving sleepy (being awake for about 20-24 hours) is the equivalent of driving drunk. In fact, animals kept awake artificially literally die after a couple of weeks.

And yet, I would bet a good majority of you still treat your sleep schedules as disposable and flexible.  Something to be traded against getting more done.  Or something that just has to be sacrificed for other things.

My question to you is this.  Why, as adults, are we so cavalier about our sleep schedules?

Actually, it's not that puzzling.  There are a lot of concrete things that need to get done at specific times.  Waking up for work, dealing with a crying baby, cramming just a little bit extra for that test.  And the downsides aren't that obvious.  Sure, you're a little tired, but you're awake, and still getting things done, right?  Maybe, you don't feel so great, but no harm done.

Well, here's the case for the other side of sleep.  This is the attempt to make concrete what you're actually losing when you trade off an hour of sleep to go to the gym or make an early meeting.

Consider this first.  We evolved sleep.  Yes … in the grand scheme of things, we evolved over many millenia so that we would leave ourselves comatose and vulnerable to predators and attackers for 8 hours a night.  Doesn't sound like a good idea, really.  Why would this happen?  It follows that there have to be some serious, serious benefits to sleep that outweigh the tremendous negatives.

For example, world class Tetris players dream of falling blocks at night.  I assure you that if you invest yourself heavily in any activity, you will probably dream about the activity.  Or perhaps you'll recall when you've had something interesting happen to you one day and that night you awaken groggily finding yourself dreaming about the event. The only difference is that your dream version is oddly twisted or random in nature.  I would argue that your brain is replaying the events of the day because it is wiring you to better handle that situation in the future.

From personal experience, I can also attest to this in a different area.  While Rock Band and drumming may not be what you consider to be the most productive endeavor … you can put that aside and treat it as the mechanics of any activity.  Let me just say that I've had more cases than I can count where I try to play a difficult pattern or song on the drums for hours.  I'll come back to it and nail it the first time after a week.  Or even three weeks.

The big question is "What happened in between?"  I certainly didn't leave off just before the point where I was going to be able to play the pattern and then come back three weeks later and pick up right where I left off.  Something changed while I was not even playing Rock Band at all … my brain and body indisputably rewired itself to better handle that specific activity.  In fact, I have learned more about how I learn from playing Rock Band than I have from other activities, but we'll leave that for another blog post.

The book Brain Rules put a lot of my previous thoughts on this into focus. It's an excellent book that delves into how the brain works, and I highly recommend it.

An anecdote from the book runs as follows.  Students were given a set of problems to answer.  The problems had two approaches.  The first was a standard and traditional approach. The second was a shortcut solution that required some leaps of insight to arrive at.  All students are given 12 hours between the first and second set of problems.  The interesting part, of course, is how the students are divided up; one group simply has twelve hours pass, but the second groups gets 8 hours of sleep somewhere in those twelve hours. 

Controlling for all kinds of variables and run every which way you can think of, the students who don't get the sleep discover the shortcut 20% of the time.  The ones who do get sleep discover the shortcut 60% of the time.

Hmm.  Ever had that "shower moment" when you came up with some really great idea or solution?  It's probably because you took a break and let your brain recharge itself. 

Let's hear about other kinds of evidence.  Sleep deprivation appears to accelerate the aging process.  Healthy 30 year olds restricted to four hours of sleep a night over six days had parts of their body chemistry performing at the level of a 60 year old.  Yikes!  And it takes a week to recover from that.  Want to keep looking fresh?  Get sleep!

Military studies indicated that losing one night of sleep resulted in a 30 percent loss in cognitive skill.  Losing two nights bumped that up to 60 percent.  And, lest you think this doesn't add up … being restricted to 6 hours per night over 5 nights resulted in the same performance as someone who hadn't slept for 48 hours.

Oddly enough, while you may feel like nothing important could be going on while you rest, nothing could be further from the truth.  Your brain is not doing nothing while you sleep.  In fact, based on scans, it is positively hyperactive.  In that context and given everything you've read above, you can form a pretty reasonable hypothesis about what is happening.  Your brain is constantly replaying and optimizing your activities while you sleep in ways that will make you better at them when you awaken.  Researchers can see this behavior in rats traversing a maze.  The neural pattern that fires when they work their way through a maze can be seen firing as they sleep.  Only it happens faster, and thousands of times over.  That's what happening when you dream about skiing, biking, or whatever your choice of hobby is.

The bottom line is that sleep is not just how you rest your body.  Sleep correlates directly with your ability to learn.  And that learning … well, I've said this before, but learning is everything.  Learning is so important that we humanly evolved to put our bodies at risk for eight hours a night just so that we would be a lot better at it.

So my challenge to you is this.  Do everything you possibly can to defend your sleep schedule.  If it's out of whack right now, take some big steps to restore some balance in your life on this front.  It should be clear to you now that getting the proper amount of sleep is absolutely essential to your ability to improve.   Respect that and don't let those precious hours of sleep get taken from you!

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