The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly BulkeleyIn an interview with the New York Times on August 16, the visionary technologist Elon Musk described the grueling work schedule he forces himself to endure in order to achieve his goals. He rarely takes any significant time away from work, and when he does, it’s often for exotic vacations requiring long travels. Recently he has been working up to 120 hours a week at his Tesla automobile plant, never going outside the factory for days at a time. He keeps a sleeping bag in his office, and when he does decide to try getting some shut-eye, he apparently makes frequent use of strong sleep-inducing medications.

Musk is a very prominent public figure and a true leader in creating the technologies of the future.  As such, his words carry great weight and influence.  It matters when Elon Musk says that his professional success requires a chronic state of sleep deprivation.

The interview prompted the sleep advocate Arianna Huffington to post an open letter to Musk on her Thrive.com website on August 17.  Huffington praised Musk’s intellectual brilliance, and she appealed to that same scientific mentality to recognize that healthy sleep is a vital element in true creativity:

You’re a science and data-driven person. You’re obsessed with physics, engineering, with figuring out how things work. So apply that same passion for science not just to your products but to yourself. People are not machines. For machines — whether of the First or Fourth Industrial Revolution variety — downtime is a bug; for humans, downtime is a feature. The science is clear. And what it tells us is that there’s simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty. It doesn’t depend on how many hours you’re awake. Tesla — and the world (not to mention you and your beautiful children) — would be better off if you regularly built in time to refuel, recharge and reconnect with your exceptional reserves of creativity and your power to innovate. Working 120-hour weeks doesn’t leverage your unique qualities, it wastes them. You can’t simply power through — that’s just not how our bodies and our brains work. Nobody knows better than you that we can’t get to Mars by ignoring the laws of physics. Nor can we get where we want to go by ignoring scientific laws in our daily lives.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

This prompted Musk to respond on August 18 at 2:32 a.m. via Twitter:

Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.

The tweet was removed a few hours later, but Huffington saw it and responded in an interview on August 20 by trying again to appeal to his own highest ideals:

This is not [just] about sleep, or about slowing down, or about asking Elon to chill out under a mango tree. It’s about how we can unlock and sustain our peak performance, and see solutions and opportunities where others can’t.

Those are precisely the virtues that Musk takes pride in having—a capacity for peak performance and visionary problem-solving.  Huffington is gently but firmly suggesting that if he truly wants to strengthen those abilities, then he must give up the false heroism of denying his body’s need for sleep, rest, and recuperation.  Chronic sleep deprivation takes your mind and body in exactly the opposite direction, towards degraded functioning in our most important human faculties.  The empirical research on the negative effects of sleep deprivation is very clear on this point.  Yet Musk remains in thrall to an unscientific attitude about the need to sacrifice sleep as the price of success.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

Is that too harsh a conclusion? Perhaps, but it seems more plausible following another article in the NYT, on August 28.  This one focused on the increasing number of problems at the Tesla factory, many of them caused by Musk’s own mercurial behavior.  More than 30 senior executives have left the company in recent years, citing his excessive micro-management, and the factory’s automated systems have suffered a never-ending stream of technical glitches, which he insists on fixing himself.  The Tesla factory was designed for maximal automation and minimal human involvement, and it seems that Musk is slowly but surely imposing that same design on himself.

Musk’s defense of his sleep-starved life highlights an often overlooked research finding that I believe has alarming implications for public health and civil society.  Below is an adapted quote from my 2016 book, Big Dreams. First, a general litany of the effects of sleep deprivation:

For humans the first signs of sleep deprivation are unpleasant feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulties concentrating. Then come problems with reading and speaking clearly, poor judgment, lower body temperature, and a considerable increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, the worsening effects include disorientation, visual misperceptions, apathy, severe lethargy, and social withdrawal.

Now comes the lesser known and more worrisome impact:

Surprisingly, even with these worsening deficits, sleep-deprived humans can still perform remarkably well on tests for certain kinds of repetitive motor and cognitive skills.  These abilities remain functional even when people no longer have any imaginative spark or feel actively engaged with the world.  According to sleep researcher Michael H. Bonnet, “responses [to performance tests] during sleep loss may occur as rapidly as before, but those responses tend to be more stereotyped and less creative.” Another researcher, Jim Horne, put it like this: “in effect, progressive sleep loss turns us into automatons and, in losing the ability to think independently, conscious awareness of ourselves is impaired and we are no longer prescient. Nevertheless, we can still run on ‘auto-pilot’ and perform routine behavior and other well-rehearsed tasks and procedures.” According to Horne, “Recent findings with clinically oriented neuropsychological tests suggest that one night without sleep causes particular impairment to tasks requiring flexible thinking and the updating of plans in the light of new information… [S]leep deprivation led to more rigid thinking, increased perseverative errors, and marked difficulty in appreciating an updated situation.”

In other words, people who are chronically sleep deprived can still perform routine, automatic, stereotyped behaviors. But they lose the ability to be innovative, adaptive, flexible, and capable of learning. They become less like humans, and more like robots. They can remain functional workers, but they are no longer creative people.

Is that really the path we want to follow, as individuals and a society?

Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap

Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap by Kelly BulkeleyNaps are not an indulgence or a sign of laziness, but a simple way of rejuvenating your mental and physical well-being. 

Here are four reasons why you should find a time and place for a brief daytime snooze.

1. You probably need it.

Many people today are sleep deprived at moderate to severe levels.  Long work hours, busy personal lives, noisy urban environments, and the stimulation of various personal devices are all making it harder than ever to get as much sleep as our minds and bodies require. A quick siesta cannot make up for all the sleep you’ve lost, but taking a nap whenever you have the chance will protect your health and diminish the long-term effects of sleep deprivation.

2.  You may be a naturally polyphasic sleeper.

Millions of years ago, our primate ancestors lived in trees, and they were polyphasic sleepers, meaning they slept at multiple times across the day and night.  When our species emerged we came down from the trees and became mostly monophasic sleepers, with one major period of sleep during the night.  But some humans have always had a strong innate tendency toward a polyphasic sleep cycle, and this is true for some people today, too.  Such people naturally need to take naps at various points during the day.  They are not lazy or slothful, they just have biological constitutions that function best with polyphasic sleep.  Unfortunately, they often have to conform with the work schedules of a monophasic society, just as naturally left-handed people have to adapt to the architecture and design of a right-handed world.

 3. You can boost your performance with a well-timed nap.

The greatest athlete-napper in the world right now has to be Mikaela Shiffrin, the gold-medal winning alpine skier from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.  She regularly naps between runs on race days, keeping her mind and body at maximal freshness.  Many top-level athletes also give themselves the opportunity to nap before a competition.  For example, the basketball player J.J. Reddick of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a nap between 2 and 4 pm every day before an evening game.  When he wakes up, he begins a pre-game routine that leads him right to tip-off.  These athletes know the power generated by healthful sleep, and they have learned to focus that power on optimizing their performance.  You can apply this same principle in your own life, by letting yourself nap before facing a major challenge or task that requires you to be at your best.

4. You can explore lucid dreaming.

Many people find it easier to enter into lucid dreaming during a nap than during a regular night’s sleep.  (A “lucid” dream is one in which you know you are dreaming within the dream).  During a nap the mind is still fairly close to waking consciousness, which allows for more cross-fertilization between different modes of awareness.  This is actually a widespread practice through history for people seeking creative insights and alternative perspectives towards waking life challenges.  Artists, scientists, and advanced meditators have all drawn inspiration from brief, lucid spells of daytime sleep that open new ways of looking at reality upon awakening.

 

This post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 7, 2018.

 

The Power of Rebound Dreaming

The Power of Rebound Dreaming by Kelly BulkeleyThere is a surprisingly easy way to stimulate an intense phase of dreaming, if you’re willing to take advantage of the “rebound effect” of sleep deprivation.  The rebound effect is a term for when a person sleeps longer than usual after a period of sleeping shorter than usual.  The magnitude of the rebound depends on 1) the severity of the sleep deprivation and 2) the freedom to sleep without awakening after the deprivation.

I just had a personal experience of this process, although I didn’t exactly plan for it.  My wife and I had seen a play the night before (the excellent “Astoria, Part 2” at Portland Center Stage), and I didn’t get to sleep until much later than I usually do.  I had to get up early the next morning, so my overall sleep that night was less than 2/3 of my usual sleep.  Not drastic sleep deprivation at all, but enough to set the rebound effect in motion.

The next night I went to bed at my usual time, but I made the mistake of not bringing my phone with me, which has the clock I use at night.  I woke up after being asleep for a long time, and figuring it was morning I got out of bed, left the bedroom, went to the kitchen—and saw from a thermostat clock that it was 3:30 am.  I didn’t want to disrupt my wife, so I went to another bedroom and buried my head under the pillows, hoping I’d fall asleep again.

I did, for another four hours without interruption, during which time I had a phase of unusually intense and dynamic dreaming.  Most of my dreams are in the range of 70-80 words per report; this dream was more than 400 words in length.  It had instances of all five major emotions (fear, anger, sadness, happiness, wonder/confusion), characters from three different ethnicities, a wild golden lion, and a fast-moving skunk.  Suffice it to say, it was quite a memorable dream.

This is exactly what the science of sleep and dreaming would predict: after a period of diminished sleep, the brain responds with a period of enhanced sleep, which naturally includes more energetic and extensive dreaming.

You can benefit from this process in your own life, the next time you have a night or two of shortened sleep then get to sleep without interruption.  The key is allowing your dreaming imagination as much freedom as possible on the “rebound” night, especially at the end of the sleep cycle, when the brain is most active and dreams are most likely to occur.  If you can let yourself sleep until you naturally awaken the next morning, you will very likely be rewarded with a stellar creative effort by the inner artist who creates your dreams.

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today.

Donald Trump: The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis

Donald Trump: The Sleep Deprivation Hypothesis by Kelly BulkeleyIt seems that every pundit on the planet has taken a shot at explaining the phenomenal rise and mercurial character of Donald Trump, currently the leading contender to become the Republican nominee for US President. A recent op-ed piece by Timothy Egan in the New York Times, “A Unified Theory of Trump,” suggested a novel and I believe entirely plausible explanation for Trump’s behavior as a candidate: he is chronically sleep deprived.

Egan pointed to Trump’s comments last November in which he boasted about his disinterest in sleep. As reported by Nara Schoenberg in the Chicago Tribune, Trump told a crowd in Springfield, Illinois that “I’m not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.” A few days later Trump told Henry Blodget in an interview for Business Insider that he can get by on as little as one hour of sleep. Here is an excerpt from the interview; the sleep discussion comes at the very beginning:

HENRY BLODGET, CEO AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF BUSINESS INSIDER: You have an incredible work ethic, which is clearly part of your success. You’re tweeting at 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re up all night.

DONALD TRUMP: It’s part of my campaign. [Conservative radio host] Mark Levin said to me last night, I had a dinner-show at 8:30. He says, “I saw you on ‘Morning Joe’ at 7, I saw you in the debate. Where do you get the energy?” he said. I said, “Mark, you know what, I got one hour of sleep last night. Because I flew from Milwaukee at 2:30 in the morning. You know, by the time you’re finished up with all the stuff and the interviews.” It was a successful debate, so I stayed around.

I then flew, I went to New Hampshire. I went to a hotel, I stayed for one hour, because I got there at 5. And by the time I got there, I had to get up to get out at 6:30 something. So I slept for one hour over there.

He said, “Where do you get the energy?”

HB: So where do you get it? Where does it come from?

DT: Genetically. My father was very energetic, my mother was very energetic. He lived to a very old age and so did my mother. I believe that I just have it from my father, from my parents. They had wonderful energy.

In her Huffington Post commentary, “Can Sleep Deprivation Explain Donald Trump’s Behavior?” Krithika Varagur noted that in his 2004 book Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, he “claimed to sleep only from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m., in order to gain a competitive advantage in his dealings. He advised readers, ‘Don’t sleep any more than you have to. … No matter how brilliant you are, there’s not enough time in the day.’”

I won’t speculate about Trump’s genetics, but I agree with Schoenberg, Egan, and Varagur that his behavioral patterns are characteristic of someone with chronic sleep deprivation, the symptoms of which include emotional imbalance, sudden mood swings, cognitive deficits, poor judgment, memory loss, irritability in social situations, increased appetites, loss of creativity, the tendency to continue with an error despite contrary evidence, and an inability to recognize and adjust to new conditions. Most of these symptoms do seem applicable to Trump. As Egan put it,

“His judgment is off, and almost always ill informed. He has trouble processing basic information. He imagines things. He shows a lack of concentration… in addition, Trump is given to inchoate bursts of anger and profanity. He creates feuds. In his speeches, he picks up on the angry voice in the mob and then amplifies it.”

But if this theory about Trump is true, then his political success seems even more bizarre than ever. How can someone who flaunts his psychological dysfunction be winning the fervent support of a large portion of the American electorate?

The answer may be embedded in the question. Trump’s supporters themselves may have a tendency to chronic sleep deprivation.

The behavioral signs are consistent with this idea. People who support Trump are remarkably unyielding in their attachment to him; nothing anyone says will change their minds. As Trump himself commented in January, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” His supporters seem to include many people who are angry, suspicious of reason, socially irritable, and uncreative in the sense of seeking a return to an earlier, simpler time, when America used to be great.

Stronger evidence comes from demographic studies of sleep. Trump’s supporters tend to be people at the lower end of the income scale, less educated, and, in their own words, feeling besieged by outside forces threatening to overwhelm the country. Empirical research has shown that people in precisely those demographic conditions are more prone to suffer insomnia and problems sleeping. For example, Sara Arber at the University of Surrey has shown correlations in the British population between poor sleep and low socio-economic status. Here is how I describe her findings in chapter 4 of my book Big Dreams:

“Research by Sara Arber and her colleagues at the Center for the Sociology of Sleep at the University of Surrey has found clear connections between socioeconomic status and sleep quality. In a study based on interviews with 8,578 British men and women between the ages of 16 and 74, Arber and her colleagues identified several social and economic factors associated with increased sleep problems: unemployment, low household income, low educational achievement, and living in rented or public housing. Women had worse sleep problems than men, and divorced or widowed people had worse sleep problems than married people. Overall, their study found that disadvantages in social and economic life were strongly correlated with poor quality sleep. Noting the negative health consequences of sleep deprivation, Arber and her colleagues suggested that “disrupted sleep may potentially be one of the mechanisms through which low socioeconomic status leads to increased morbidity and mortality.”

The last point bears emphasis. Poor socioeconomic conditions can lead to poor sleep, which in turn can lead to increased health problems and a shorter lifespan. Sleep seems to be a pressure point where adverse social forces can directly and negatively impact a person’s physiological health.

My research with the Sleep and Dream Database has also found that people at the low end of the economic scale tend to have more insomnia and trouble sleeping. In a 2007 survey I found, consistent with Arber et al.’s research, that people with higher education and higher annual income tended to have less insomnia than people with lower education and lower annual income. A 2010 survey found the same pattern: people without college degrees had somewhat worse insomnia than people with a college degree. On the personal finances question, people with the lowest annual income reported having worse insomnia than did the people with the highest annual incomes. (I discuss these surveys at greater length in chapter 4 of Big Dreams.)

Most Americans are sleep deprived not by choice or genetics, but because of the relentless stress and pressure of modern life. For those Americans at the lower end of the economic scale, with fewer opportunities and more anxieties about the worsening condition of the country, it becomes difficult to preserve normal, healthy patterns of sleep.

And then Donald Trump comes along and says sleep deprivation is nonsense, that’s just what losers think when they see a high-energy individual with a strong work ethic. Trump shows people how to re-brand their loss of sleep as a badge of honor, reconceive their misfortune as a virtuous strength, and transform their diminished inner life into an outward projection of aggressive confidence. It seems to work for him, and the implicit promise of his campaign is that it will work for his supporters, too.

 

References:

Arber, Sara, Marcos Bote, and Robert Meadows. “Gender and socio-economic patterning of self-reported sleep problems in Britain,” Social Science & Medicine 68 (2009): 281-289.

Arber, Sara, Robert Meadows, and S. Venn. “Sleep and Society,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sleep and Sleep Disorders (Charles Morin and Colin Espie, ed.s). New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 223-247.

 

Note: this essay first appeared in the Huffington Post on March 9, 2016.