Out for the Count

“To sleep, perchance to dream-
ay, there’s the rub.” – Hamlet, Act III

On April 13 at 2 am, an air traffic controller in Reno, Nevada fell asleep on the job. Repeated contact attempts failed. In late March, another air traffic controller at Reagan National airport in Washington DC had also admitted to sleeping for about 30 minutes while alone on the overnight shift. He, too, could not be roused by telephone. The FAA says this is the fourth time this has happened this year.

In a remarkable feat of serendipitous journalistic timing, the New York Times Magazine published an article April 17 entitled: “How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?” This one should be in the air traffic controller school mandatory reading list.

I’ve always been fascinated by sleep. It’s like junk DNA. Nobody knows exactly why we need it. Without it, we’re in trouble. But how much is not enough? When scientists prevent lab rats from sleeping, the rats die. Depriving people of sleep by forcing them to remain standing for long periods of time is a well-known form of torture. Symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation include weight gain, clumsiness, hallucinations, depression, headaches, irritation and yawning. (No, really? Yawn.)

The longest scientifically verified period of time anyone has intentionally gone without sleep without using stimulants of any kind is 11 days. The record was set by a 17-year old San Diego boy named Randy. The researchers were amazed that after 11 days the kid was able to beat the Stanford scientist at a game of pinball. If pinball was then what online role-playing games are today, then of course the teenager could beat the adult while for all practical purposes asleep! That’s hardly an argument for “unimpaired cognitive function!” More revealing is the hallucination he had on day four that he was Paul Lowe winning the Rose Bowl.

The Guinness Book of World Records has stopped recording voluntary sleep deprivation, fearing that people will hurt themselves. Now that speaks volumes. You can fly in a motorcycle over cars, jump off of cliffs, carry a table with your teeth  (with a person sitting on it) or pull a 6,000-pound train with your beard, but don’t deprive yourself of sleep on purpose. You might harm yourself.

Forty supremely unlucky families in the world carry the gene for Fatal Familial Insomnia, an inherited prion disease that strikes its victims around the age of 50. These people literally die from lack of sleep. There is no cure or treatment. Now that’s a true nightmare.

Back to the New York Times article, which is why I started this post in the first place. The air traffic controller was just a coincidence. It’s about research done by David Dinges, a Penn professor who “has the distinction of depriving more people of sleep than perhaps anyone in the world.” He went to town on this one, depriving dozens of people of sleep over a two-week period, and then carefully monitoring their cognitive performance with a series of annoying tests. One group got four hours, a second group six, and the control group got 8 hours of blissful sleep every night. No coffee or Red Bull was allowed during the study.

Result: Everyone except those in the 8-hour group suffered attention lapses and cognitive declines. I have always thought that six hours a night is “reasonable.” Turns out I was drunk.

“All told, by the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk.”

Even worse, us six-hour-sleepers are harboring the illusion that we’re doing just fine. No problem! I’m on top of it! Never felt better!

“Still, while it’s tempting to believe we can train ourselves to be among the five-hour group — we can’t, Dinges says — or that we are naturally those five-hour sleepers, consider a key finding from Van Dongen and Dinges’s study: after just a few days, the four- and six-hour group reported that, yes, they were slightly sleepy. But they insisted they had adjusted to their new state. Even 14 days into the study, they said sleepiness was not affecting them. In fact, their performance had tanked.”

That could explain some of my writer’s block episodes. Especially those in which I fell asleep on the keyboard. I just needed more sleep! My cognitive capacities were on the skids from an accumulated sleep deficit.

There are some people who can get by on fewer than eight hours a night (they estimate this at about 5% of the population, and this group does not include you but does include the EPFL President) and a few who need more like 9 or 10. You Know Who You Are. And then there are the vampires, who don’t sleep at all. The good ones stay up all night practicing the piano to impress their hot high school sweethearts. The bad ones scour suburban neighborhoods for stray cats and teenagers who’ve broken their curfews. But that’s beyond the scope of this blog.

Americans supposedly get an average of 6.9 hours a night. We’re thus racking up a collective sleep debt of 375 hours every year! Multiply that by the population, and price it at about $8 an hour, and that’s worth $100 billion in lost sleep. Surely this is a national security issue. No wonder our teenagers can’t compete with the Chinese or the Swedes. They’re sleep deprived! Their teachers are sleep deprived! Can someone please form a panel of so-called experts on this and televise it?

There is clearly some crucial cerebral housekeeping going on while we’re out for the count. (That, in itself, is a fascinating subject, worthy of a post.) Ignore it at your peril. The facts are in, people. Do with them what you will.

I think I’ll have a little siesta.

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