Every so often that old joke does the rounds of the internet again. Good grades, active social life, enough sleep: choose two of three. While this obviously doesn’t embody all of university life, it is accurate in showing how we live at the expense of our sleep, under the illusion that we will catch up at Christmas or Easter or when we eventually pass out in a lecture. We all know how important sleep is, and the chances are none of us are getting enough of it.
Most students are familiar with the involuntary closing of one’s eyes in a lecture, despite every intention of remaining awake. But chronic sleep deprivation and prolonged periods of wakefulness go far beyond the annoyances of falling asleep in class, and include memory impairment, hallucinations, slower reaction time, even psychosis.
The severity of lack of sleep is really quite astounding. Individuals have forced themselves to remain awake for extended periods as empirical self-studies. One teenager stayed up for a four nights and was hospitalised at the end of the experience, and required psychological therapy as part of his recovery. He had been reduced to a mess of incoherent ramblings and his behaviour resembled that of an LSD trip.
Lack of sleep can in fact be so severe that it is a method of torture, used because it reduces a person’s resistance to pain, breaks down their willpower, and leaves no visible scars. So next time you’re house mate’s techno marathon playlist is throbbing through your house and keeping you awake, you can invoke your human right to freedom from torture. (United Nations Convention Against Torture, Article 1.1., if you’re interested.)
Of course, most of us are not facing sleep deprivation torture or hospitalisation. Even though these show the extremes of sleep deprivation, we can still see the importance of sleep, and how our sleep affects other areas of our lives. You only need to try functioning in class or at work on a few late ones or an all-nighter and you notice the difference.
Lack of sleep has been called out as the culprit for a number of immediate negative effects, and even some longer term ones, but perhaps most important is the importance of sleep in consolidating memories. We may think that staying up and cramming is a good idea in the run up to exams, but sleep is crucial in the consolidation of both procedural and declarative memory.
And it turns out that lack of sleep accumulates, in what is known as the “sleep debt”. We power through the week and think that a single long night of sleep somewhere in the weekend will help us bounce back. Actually, lack of sleep is more like when you’re out of sync across time zones. To overcome jet-lag, prevailing wisdom says it takes as many nights to recover as the hours of time difference
Unfortunately, our society isn’t geared toward getting a good night’s sleep, and we often see sleep as the opposite of productivity. In this environment it can be difficult to put in the effort to get our sleep right. According to the National Sleep Foundation in the US, sleep hygiene (the practices and routines which surround our sleep) is critical if we are to be our most alert and functional in the day.
There are lists all over the internet of ways to improve your sleep, but good sleep hygiene centres on regularity, routine, and association. This means going to bed at the same time as often as possible, being consistent so that your body and mind know when you are about to sleep, and having a space associated with sleep and not work or activity. There are also other things which may stop you sleeping, such as chewing down on a pizza just before you turn in, or binging on YouTube for a couple of hours. Light is a major factor in regulating our sleep cycles, and exposure to blue screen light right before your bed-time.
Whether we like it or not, sleep is essential to our livelihoods, even if we still don’t really understand why. University life can be stressful, and throwing in a lack of sleep on top of socialising (drinking) and deadlines (procrastination) adds to a mix that can get you down.
Obviously as students we’re hardly going to have regular sleep schedules, and this isn’t a suggestion that we drop everything for a life of early nights. But if you find yourself getting ill a lot, struggling to stay focused and remembering course material, or waking up in the library cafe with your face in a journal article, your lack of sleep might have something to do with it.