FreeThought Fort Wayne

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You only think you need more sleep

Posted by neuralgourmet on October 16, 2008

Do you need more sleep? You might think you do, but sleep researcher Jim Horne says otherwise

Do you need more sleep? You might think you do, but sleep researcher Jim Horne says otherwise

I just had a nightcap and I was about to turn in for a good night’s sleep when I spied this fascinating article on sleep over at New Scientist. Everybody could use more sleep right? We’re all chronically sleep deprived. I know I believed that. And it seems a constant refrain in the media. Heck, my pulmonologist even told me that the night before my sleep study to determine sleep apnea.

But sleep researcher Jim Horne says it is indeed a myth.

ASK people whether they would like more sleep, and most will say yes. Does that mean they are not sleeping enough? The apparent desire for more shut-eye, together with oft-repeated assertions that our grandparents slept longer, all too easily leads to the conclusion that we in the west are chronically sleep-deprived. Adding to these concerns are recent claims that inadequate sleep causes obesity and related disorders, such as diabetes.

Plus ça change. Claims of widespread sleep deprivation in western society are nothing new – in 1894, the British Medical Journal ran an editorial warning that the “hurry and excitement” of modern life was leading to an epidemic of insomnia.

Even then it probably wasn’t true. The fact is that most adults get enough sleep, and our collective sleep debt, if it exists at all, has not worsened in recent times. Moreover, claims that sleep deprivation is contributing to obesity and diabetes have been overblown. My assertion is that the vast majority of people sleep perfectly adequately. That’s not to say that sleep deprivation doesn’t exist. But in general we’ve never had it so good.

While it’s hard for me to disagree with Horne’s studies, I’m not sure I agree with all of his conclusions though. For instance:

To gauge the respondents’ determination to make up their perceived sleep debt, we then asked, “If you had an extra hour a day, how would you prefer to spend it?” The alternatives were playing sport or exercising, socialising, reading or relaxing, watching TV or listening to the radio, working, sleeping, and “other”.

Only a handful of people opted to use their extra hour for sleep. It seems that wanting more sleep is not necessarily synonymous with needing more sleep, and that given a choice, people will happily forego extra sleep in favour of other leisure activities.

Before my sleep apnea was diagnosed and treated if I was asked what I’d do with an extra hour a day I’d definitely have said something like reading, or socializing. Yet I was most most certainly sleep deprived in a massive sort of way.

We’re conditioned in American culture at least, I think, to think that if we have extra time we should be doing something productive. Horne makes that suggestion too. So it seems only natural for someone to not admit to a need for more sleep. Still, this is an fascinating article that deftly dismisses several pop-cultural tropes about sleep and Horne gives us much to consider. I’ll be adding his book Sleepfaring: A Journey Through The Science Of Sleep to my long, long list of books to read. You know, that list I keep for the day I suddenly find myself not needing sleep.

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2 Responses to “You only think you need more sleep”

  1. James said

    Great post. I feel that many Westerners like myself just have too much crap that we have to do. Life has become overly complicated and there are too many obligations that we have to everyone other than ourselves; tons of emails, checking Facebook and Myspace for updates, getting ready for this wedding or that birthday.

    Given extra 1 hour I’d probably use it for something just for myself, and wouldn’t waste a good hour on something that I will never remember, like sleep. I can only speculate that if those who don’t sleep well, like myself, were to unplug and slow down then that would probably help. But who wants to slow down.

  2. Thanks James. I think you’re right on the money with your comment. After all, I was going to turn in right after I posted this here and yet here I am an hour later responding to your comment. Curse you and your cyber-distraction! 😀

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