Pascal recently discussed sleep, the first part in a series on how to build a successful and sustainable life in science (or maybe even a life in life). He first covered cultural attitudes towards sleep. The attitudes he’s observed are: sleep is for losers; at best, it’s a waste of time; great people don’t sleep very much; no sleep equals success; the real elites get by on little sleep; and people who sleep more are just lazy.
Pascal’s evidence for these views included ‘The Sleepless Elite’ by Melinda Beck in the Health Journal of The Wall Street Journal. She notes that natural short sleepers are ‘energetic, outgoing, optimistic and ambitious, according to the few researchers who have studied them’. The pattern (for natural short sleepers) starts in childhood and often runs in families. She also says it’s unclear if they are high achievers, despite having more time to do stuff. In the context of finding natural short sleepers, she points out that out of every 100 people who believe they only need five or six hours of sleep a night, only about five people really do. The rest end up chronically sleep deprived, part of the one-third of US adults that get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. She alludes to work work by Dr. Ying-Hui Fu from UCSF who discovered a gene variation, hDEC2, in a pair of short sleepers in 2009. Mice with the gene variation need less sleep.
Anyway, to Pascal’s point about cultural attitudes, I’d say this one only mildly supports it, despite the title. You might come away wishing you had that gene, or to be one of the naturals, but the focus is more on how short sleeping is done and among whom, than that those who don’t achieve so much more, or are among some sleepless elite.
Additional evidence comes from examples of great people who don’t, or didn’t, sleep very much. Pascal showed a bar plot of self reported average sleep durations for different athletes, with the incredible Tiger Woods half-heighted bar reflecting 4-5 hours per night. I should say this bar plot might be described as a Tuftian nightmare, but nevermind. Well, it is tough not to question this. What about all the other bars, which seem to be quite high? Are those all average people in their sport? And what’s the light blue dark blue thing (maybe that’s indicating performance)? And are self reports not a deeply flawed measure? N=1? Anyway, Woods doesn’t sleep very much and is in the category of greats where other greats run out of superlatives for him.
Other great people that didn’t need much sleep include Leonardo Da Vinci, roughly 1.5 hours per day. According to at least one website, legend has it he slept for 15 minutes every four hours. Napoleon Bonaparte, 4 hours per night. Thomas Edison, 5 hours per night. The less is more idea extends beyond great individuals to the group level, with Citi adopting the slogan, ‘Citi Never Sleeps’. Consider that Citi is headquartered in, has a baseball park named after it, in The City that Never Sleeps.
Reviewing the ideas and some other facts: lack of sleep as a badge of honor; less sleep equals more out of life; people want to be part of this; people respond to incentives; average sleep duration has dropped from over 8 hours to under 6.75 hours in the past 100 years; and technology is meeting this demand for less sleep. There are over 250 Starbucks in Manhattan (people drink lots of stimulating drinks). There are also drugs like Provigil, which is widely used off-label to suppress the need for sleep.
There are also different types of sleepers, from the more conventional monophasic, which sleeps in one big chunk, to the Uberman (Pascal’s term?) for sleeping in small increments at six regular intervals.
Pascal bought into this and wasn’t sleeping very much. Thankfully this was during a period in which he was heavily engaged in tracking himself. Below is a plot of what I believe is his sleep in blue, his work in black, and his mood in red. x-axis is time in days. To me, what stands out more than little sleep is lots of variability. It’d be interesting to know if he’s computed correlations between these. Almost surely he has, but what are they?
So why sleep? Because there is evidence that it’s to your benefit; all animals do it, and if they can afford to, they do it in a more phasic way; and chronic and complete sleep deprivation is fatal. Getting it helps with insight, which is supported by this paper (Wagner et al., 2004), which I believe shows that subjects who’ve slept well are better able to do cognitive tasks, such as connecting nine dots in a three by three grid with four continuous straight lines without lifting your pen from the page. Getting it helps with self-control, which is supported by this paper (Barnes et al. 2011), which I believe shows that well rested participants are much ‘more persistent in assigned tasks and much less likely to cut corners. Sleep deprived subjects were much more likely to outright cheat on the assigned tasks’. And lastly, neurons will ‘sleep’ if you don’t (Vyazovskiy et al. 2011).
If your goal is long term sustainability, respect sleep, it’s important. Don’t mess with it (e.g., Uberman, etc.). There is no substitute for it and there won’t be one for a while (although people are working on it). Some things to consider with regard to making it happen include that we’re often overstimulated with things like coffee, caffeine has a long half-life. We’re exposed to bright light at night (e.g., LCD screens). Many of us are awoken by loud and unpleasant sounds, such as sirens and partiers. One approach that Pascal uses is light management. His setup involves an array of Philips goLITE BLU Light Therapy Devices and last, but not least, the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach. Quite cool.