Living night by night
By Susie Neilson
Colin Egan gestures me through a pungent hall to his fraternity house single, pats the seat of a beige plaid couch and flops onto his bed. He looks a little like a tired, bearded Harry Potter, with tousled black hair and bespectacled eyes. “I call this part entropy,” he says, pointing to a particularly large pile of thermodynamics homework by his bed, “because it’s thermo homework, and, you know, disorder.”
Entropy is a good descriptor for the chaotic room. A plastic skeleton hand claws at the coffee table and several M.C. Escher posters surround a shelf stuffed with philosophy and science fiction books, which Egan says he is too busy to read. He has better things to do.
“I’m anti-dogma and antischedule,” Egan says, leaning forward. “I do things because I think about them, not because society wants me to.”
Last spring, Egan, a Weinberg sophomore majoring in chemistry, decided sleep was a waste of time. He began sleeping three to four hours a night with no naps during the day. These days, instead of preparing for 8 a.m. orgo with any semblance of a sleep ritual, Egan seeks out a group of friends who share his distaste for unconsciousness. They spend time watching movies, running his early morning radio show, doing homework or just chilling until 5 a.m. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.
“There is no schedule. You sleep when you’re tired, and when you have four hours to kill–no, four hours to spare,” he says.
But Egan seems to relish the strangeness of it all, chuckling as he describes his in-class power naps and auditory hallucinations.
“My professor would be like, ‘You add these two numbers together, and then the Queen of England goes off in her pumpkin carriage and lives in the pumpkin patch, and you divide by these numbers.'” He laughs. “You hear weird stuff, you see weird stuff, and you’re not sure what to believe.”
When I ask Egan why he chooses to endure this groggy alternate reality, his answer is quick and comprehensive. It’s a philosophical choice, he says, based on an album by musician Warren Zevon:
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
The death of sleep
The American hate affair with sleep began long before a group of students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology canonized it with the now-famous “college triangle,” a model more familiar to most undergraduates than any from their physics or economics classes. Pick any two–good grades, social life and sleep, the saying goes, with the tacit understanding that in this case, sleep is the first to go.
This adage applies to Northwestern students just as it does their tech-oriented friends in Cambridge: We sleep an average of six and a half hours per night. A survey of NU undergraduates conducted through the office of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in 2011 showed that 40 percent wake up feeling sleep deprived at least five days out of the week. Only 10 percent say they have no problem with sleepiness during the day, and almost 77 percent fall asleep from sheer exhaustion at least one night a week.
Why do college students get so little sleep? According to Kathryn Reid, a research associate professor in the Department of Neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, there are a lot of reasons –many associated with age.
“Some call college the perfect storm of not sleeping,” Reid says, laughing. “It’s easier to stay awake later when you’re young, because you’re programmed to do it.”
Reid’s office has a mini sleep lab, a spartan small room with a fold-out bed and a polysomnography machine, which records various biophysical changes during sleep. Alongside primary researcher Phyllis Zee, Reid tests volunteers, some of them Northwestern students and staff, to better understand how aging affects the human circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that regulates behavior and energy levels in response to varying levels of light.
In teenagers, these rhythms beat in perfect time to a nightclub lifestyle. The sleep hormone melatonin doesn’t start pumping into the brains of young adults until around 11 p.m. and stays in their systems until later in the morning, an evolutionary advantage from our days as cavemen, when teens and adults kept watch for predators at different intervals throughout the night.
Enter the college experience, which heaps a plateful of brand-new lifestyle changes on top of the biological rhythms.
Coupled with the shift in hormones, students’ newfound liberation from rigorously scheduled school and family life, along with the dizzying ubiquity of friends and activities, is so overstimulating that they cannot relax when they lay their heads on the pillow. This leaves many of them lying awake counting sheep even as the stress hormone cortisol courses through their glands, making a good night’s sleep impossible.
All of these factors feed into the “sleep when you’re dead” philosophy that Egan takes a little too literally. Call it the cult of YOLO–a catchy abbreviation for “You Only Live Once” that is fast becoming our generation’s “carpe diem.”
Dr. Ralph Pascualy, senior medical director for sleep medicine at the Seattle-based Swedish Medical Center, doesn’t buy into this cult. He says Northwestern students will feed into a nationwide professional “culture of overenthusiasm,” pressuring them into peak performance across a staggering array of activities far beyond the age at which they can handle them. Moreover, this culture is actually counterproductive to working well.
“The idea that living is like a giant well, and that you have to drink for as long as possible, is the dumbest idea ever,” says Pascualy, whose 18-year-old teenage children have had a self-imposed 9 p.m. bedtime since grammar school. “If you spend a lot of time being driven, you’ll become a multitasker by the accumulation of excessive demands which result in a lack of time to focus, engage and complete what is at hand without interruptions. Pretty soon what happens is your brain, over time, kindles circuits, and at a certain point, your brain requires stimulation because you’ve programmed it to become stimulated. If you have any free time, you find yourself unable to do anything other than go find some stimulation. This leads to a chronic state of dissatisfaction.”
Pascualy certainly hasn’t slept through life. He is a nationally recognized sleep specialist who has pioneered clinical care programs for patients with sleep disorders since 1984, with multiple lectures, research papers and a book on obstructive sleep apnea to his name. He’s also no robot–he loves traveling and boating. His sleep is hardwon and he guards it zealously, as did many famous sleepers such as Albert Einstein and Calvin Coolidge.
So how does he do it? Has Dr. Pascualy captured all three corners of the elusive triangle?
His answer: sort of. Pascualy loves his balanced lifestyle and says that it has brought him success and happiness. But to a college student with no concept of mortality, during a time when our horizons seem limitless, Pascualy’s philosophy is frankly depressing.
“There exists by definition an infinite number of experiences,” he says. “We have to cope with limits, with the fact that we’re mortal.”
Drowsy and dumb
For the most part, Taylor Billings sleeps at least seven to eight hours a night.
“I just prioritize it,” says Billings, shrugging as she digs a spoon into a bowl of cereal. In the kitchen of the Alpha Phi sorority house around 10 a.m., bleary-eyed girls pass from time to time, clutching paper cups filled with coffee to pregame a long day of classes. “Honestly for me, staying up is just exponentially less productive than getting the sleep I need. I hate what happens when I stay up late. I get fever. I physically feel the effects.”
Billings is a Weinberg sophomore in the pre-med track with about 20 hours of class per week. She’s heavily involved in Greek life, serves on executive boards for several extracurricular groups and goes out on the weekends. Yet she’s found time to master one of the trickiest concepts Northwestern could throw at her. Like Pascualy, Billings has learned her limits.
“I could procrastinate and do two things for four hours and get nothing done, or I could just go to sleep,” Billings says, voicing the pragmatic solution to an issue that most of us face. In a cruel twist of fate, the sleep-deprived lifestyle most students lead is especially detrimental to the primary reason they are here.
“It’s a lot harder to learn when you’re sleep deprived. Your mind turns against you, and there’s nothing scarier than that,” says David K. Randall, a senior reporter at Reuters who has written for the New York Times, among other publications. Randall’s having some trouble with limiting himself right now–he’s balancing the wild success of his 2012 book, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, with an eleven-month-old son–but he still finds time to tweet.
After a volley of direct Twitter messages and a subsequent exchange of phone numbers, he finally manages to find time to talk sleep–a conversation conducted piecemeal thanks to the ironic interruptions of his little son, Henry, who protests his naptime with wails so loud Randall has to hang up several times to comfort him.
During our third call, I tell Randall about Egan’s “sleep when you’re dead” philosophy. He laughs.
“He won’t have to wait too long then,” he says.
Randall is referring to the numerous ways in which sleep deprivation makes for a shorter life span. Along with being a chief contributor to roadside accidents and accidental military fatalities, prolonged sleep deprivation can contribute to the development of chronic illnesses like heart disease and cancer. One study correlated sleep deprivation with increased rates of dementia and death in the elderly.
Different issues affect college students in a campus setting, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less deleterious. Sleep deprivation diminishes our ability to retain information and triggers depression and anxiety for anyone who is predisposed. It makes us fatter: One 2012 Harvard study found that women who slept five hours or fewer a night were 15 percent more likely to be obese than women who slept seven or more hours, probably because they crave energy and their frontal lobes are too exhausted to step in and control the cravings. Sleeplessness even makes us uglier: A 2010 Swedish study had subjects assign an attractiveness rating to two pictures of the same person, one when he or she was sleep-deprived and one where she wasn’t. Almost universally, subjects rated the wellrested person as way hotter.
For our beloved Nerdwestern, severe sleep deprivation can even resemble profound mental disability. Randall tells the story of a boy in Australia who was falling asleep constantly in class, leading his teachers to consider him mentally retarded. It turned out that he had a severe case of sleep apnea. He was one of the first patients treated with a CPAP mask and was able to rejoin his classroom.
Then again, the cognitive effects of sleeplessness can feel immediate and alarming–a phenomenon of which Weinberg junior Tianlin “Linlin” Sun is all too aware.
She’s a slight, dark-haired girl who punctuates her sentences with the word “dude.” She hardly looks or acts like an Uberman, although she tried the notorious sleep schedule named after the Nietzschean construct in the spring of her freshman year. It was part of an attempt to balance two lab classes with free time to read blogs and watch television. For ten weeks Sun slept four hours a night, with two 15-minute naps during the day.
“It’s not a perfect solution–you still get tired, maybe exhausted at first. But you function,” she says of the schedule, which Lifehacker.com claimed would let her maximize the short sleeping time by entering REM as soon as her head hit the pillow.
“You never realize how much sleep impacts you,” she says, “but [on this schedule] the days go on forever. It just never stops. You’re sitting in the lounge watching people come and go, and it’s like you’re in a movie, where people fast-forward back and forth, back and forth.”
Starved of the rest she needed, Sun’s thinking dulled; she lost the ability to write, read and even doodle. “You can’t use the creative paths on the sides anymore,” she says. “You think in a straight line.”
Though her grades didn’t suffer as a result of her stint as an Uberman, Sun quit immediately after finals week, conceding that while the Uberman lifestyle might work for some people, it didn’t for her.
“I just realized how awesome my bed was,” she says.
As for why Sun conducted this extreme experiment on herself, she says she “thought it was a college thing.” She shrugs, gesturing at a coffee shop of students huddled in chairs, faces turned to laptops screens and away from the noonday sun. “I thought it was just something you did.”
Another motive leaps out. “People with weird sleep schedules, they’re usually notable people in history, like Leonardo Da Vinci, [Buckminster] Fuller, a lot of famous people in chemistry,” she says. “You try to emulate them, see what makes them tick.”
Da Vinci and Fuller, the latter a noted inventor and the namesake of the “buckyball” carbon molecule, both engaged in intermittent sleep patterns stricter than hers.
“Do students actually think that with a few hours more awake, they, too, will be luminaries?” Pascualy asks, adding that Sun’s thought process exemplifies the scientific no-no of false correlation–humans’ misguided tendency to conflate different phenomena simply because they exist together. “Well, I can tell you the answer is no. You’re probably not a 200-IQ super-person who could memorize a sonata by age five.”
Randall agrees, noting that some famous non-sleepers were likely exaggerating or simply lying about their vampire-like schedules, and probably not functioning at their highest levels while awake. Thomas Edison admitted to no more than three to four hours of sleep per night, claiming that any more made a person “unhealthy and inefficient.” Yet Edison had a cot hidden away in his workshop onto which he would collapse at random throughout the day and night.
The number of people who claim they can healthily subsist on five hours a night is a lot more than the amount who actually can, which is around five percent of us, says Pascualy. Furthermore, you can’t gain admittance to the “functional sleeplessness club” simply by trying. “It’s just genetic, how much sleep you need,” he says. “It varies from person to person. But for the most part, over the long term, most people are going to need seven to eight hours a night.”
The quest for YOLO
The fact is, Randall says, college is a crazy time. Perhaps the machismo is a defense mechanism for laziness–Pascualy admits most students lack the maturity or diligence necessary to adhere to a rigorous schedule like his without a conscious approach to living well. Add in youthful energy levels that can compensate for relatively high levels of fatigue compared with older adults, and sleep falls by the wayside more often. And when it doesn’t or can’t anymore, students tend to sleep like they’ve forgotten how to do it properly.
“I have friends who are insomniacs and friends who sleep for eighteen hours straight,” says Sun. “They’re all at opposite ends of the spectrum. People sleep in the weirdest places. The library, the couches at PARC, here,” she says, again gesturing out at Norbucks.
And that weirdness is okay, Randall says, as long as it translates into getting enough total hours of sleep.
“Americans mistakenly believe you have to get eight hours of sleep in a row or it doesn’t count,” he says. “You can sleep for five hours in the middle of the night and four hours in the afternoon and function just as well. It’s about the twenty-four-hour time period.”
Even Billings admits to days when her linear timeline derails. “I have nights where sleep doesn’t happen for me. I go out,” she says. “It’s not like I’m a crazy person.”
Even the most pragmatic of students indulges in the YOLO idea from time to time. Indeed, the idea may be the only thing that Pascualy and Egan agree upon. The disagreement arises from what constitutes effective lifetime maximization.
“I’m a doctor,” Pascualy says. “You’re gonna die, and that’s all you know for sure. When you work with people who don’t have a conception of mortality, who don’t realize they don’t have forever and it’s impossible to have it all, then they don’t understand that … what’s important is to be in the present. When you’re in the present, then you stop freaking out about tomorrow.”
And when you’re freaking out about tomorrow, it’s impossible to fall asleep. Any insomniac can tell you that.