Sunday, September 30, 2007

Drowning in "sleep debt"

Well, this is a timely subject for me to be covering with my introductory psychology students.

Each of us has a specific daily sleep requirement. The average sleep requirement for college students is well over eight hours, and the majority of students would fall within the range of this value plus or minus one hour. If this amount is not obtained, a sleep debt is created. All lost sleep accumulates progressively as a larger and larger sleep indebtedness. Furthermore, your sleep debt does not go away or spontaneously decrease. The only way to reduce your individual sleep debt is by obtaining extra sleep over and above your daily requirement.


So, here I am, up to my eyeballs in sleep debt. How am I supposed to get out of debt? By sleeping, one would presume. Except that I get into this ironic-sounding but very real state of "overtired" and I can't. But now, at least I have something new to worry about during those sleepless hours.

Like, if I can't get sleep on my own, and I have to pay off this sleep debt, what options do I have? Go to the sleep bank to take out a loan? Maybe my credit isn't good, and I'd be forced to go to a sleep loan shark. What do they do if you can't pay on time. Instead of breaking your legs, maybe they burn your mattress...

Sleep researcher William Dement--who wrote the article I excerpted above--has said that a large sleep debt "makes you stupid". At very least, as evidenced above, it is making my jokes stupid.

Jokes aside, though, this has been on my mind a lot lately. I think we hear these things about how much sleep we need, and how unhealthy it is to rack up a huge sleep debt, many of us are inclined to nod seriously, but then file that away with all the other "shoulds" that most of us ignore. And I wonder if there's something in the Western, "rugged individualist" mindset that tells us we're supposed to be able to "conquer the natural world", even when it comes to our own biological needs. I can't say exactly where, but I picked up an idea like that somewhere along the line. The idea that I should be able to "overcome" tiredness by sheer force of will. Or the idea that, if my schedule is packed and I can't fit everything in, sleep is an area where I can cut some corners.

I'm coming to realize that I can't, and that I need to listen to what my body is telling me.