Sleeping Sickness

One of the greatest pleasures of being done with coursework is the ability to take time to process things rather than simply layering in a dozen more potential things to think about. But old habits are hard to break, and every time I encounter a text that has references that I’m unfamiliar with, I still feel compelled to read half the things listed in its bibliography—a time consuming, and perhaps nonsensical reaction. I mean, what have I got to prove to anyone? It’s absolutely impossible to have read everything. I wish I could fall back on Derrida’s tongue in cheek response when questioned if he had read all the books in his house— “oh no, I’ve only read about four or five of them. I’ve just read them very carefully.”

There is always the feeling that I haven’t thought things through carefully enough. I used to use sleep to think things over in a more relaxed manner. That hasn’t been happening as much as it used to, I think because of the increased level of family stress. I used to write a lot in my sleep, and wake up and try to get it down. There’s this sort of magical clarity when you’re in that sort of drifty half-waking moment between things. There is less pressure, less compulsion to make immediate sense as the ideas sort of arrange themselves in a non-object driven format. I was watching a Walker Evans biography the other day and someone mentioned that he just couldn’t get up and motivated before around 11am each day. I can empathize. It might have been that he was hung-over. I prefer to think that he was just using the time to think.

I read a story about the impact of sleep deprivation on cognitive abilities this morning and was struck by this part:

Convinced by the mountain of studies, a handful of school districts around the nation are starting school later in the morning. The best known of these is in Edina, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis, where the high school start time was changed from 7:25 a.m. to 8:30. The results were startling. In the year preceding the time change, math and verbal SAT scores for the top 10 percent of Edina’s students averaged 1288. A year later, the top 10 percent averaged 1500, an increase that couldn’t be attributed to any other variable. “Truly flabbergasting,” said Brian O’Reilly, the College Board’s executive director for SAT Program Relations, on hearing the results.

Another trailblazing school district is Lexington, Kentucky’s, which also moved its start time an hour later. After the time change, teenage car accidents in Lexington were down 16 percent. The rest of the state showed a 9 percent rise.

I don’t think it’s possible to really make the case that smart people sleep late, given the vast amounts of documentation about smart driven people getting up before dawn to work. But it seems certain that sleep has something to do with it. I suppose it has to do with the discipline involved in going to bed early. I’ve never been able to manage that. All the good stuff happens at night, as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t understand the romance of the sunrise—and never have.

The most troubling conclusion about sleep deprivation (which I practiced with great success throughout most of my thirties) was this:

Parents and educators might remain skeptical about the importance of the lost hour, but the sleep-research community considers the evidence irrefutable. Their convictions hardened as scientists began to understand sleep’s vital role in synthesizing and storing memories.

Dr. Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley explains that during sleep, the brain shifts what it learned that day to more efficient storage regions of the brain. Each stage of sleep plays a unique role in capturing memories. For example, studying a foreign language requires learning vocabulary, auditory memory of new sounds, and motor skills to correctly enunciate new words. The vocabulary is synthesized by the hippocampus early in the night during “slow-wave sleep,” a deep slumber without dreams. The motor skills of enunciation are processed during Stage 2 non-rem sleep, and the auditory memories are encoded across all stages. Memories that are emotionally laden get processed during R.E.M. sleep. The more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night.

To consolidate these memories, certain genes appear to up-regulate during sleep; they literally turn on, or get activated. One of these genes is essential for synaptic plasticity, the strengthening of neural connections. The brain does synthesize some memories during the day, but they’re enhanced and concretized during the night: New inferences and associations are drawn, leading to insights the next day.

Perhaps most fascinating, the emotional context of a memory affects where it gets processed. Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories get processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories yet recall gloomy memories just fine.

In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81 percent of the words with a negative connotation, like cancer. But they could remember only 41 percent of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like sunshine or basket.

“We have an incendiary situation today,” Walker remarks, “where the intensity of learning that kids are going through is so much greater, yet the amount of sleep they get to process that learning is so much less. If these linear trends continue, the rubber band will soon snap.”

Way back in 2002, I was really interested in the amygdala and its relationship to traumatic memory. The idea that sleep would be central to the formation of associations makes perfect sense to me. Maybe this has something to do with the darker tinge I always find when accessing my memories from my mid-life madness. It’s hard to say.

It certainly adds a bit of credibility to the surrealist project, with its fascination with dream imagery. I originally thought that my predilection for “directed sleeping” had something to do with reading too much Carlos Castaneda as an adolescent — but it never really had much to do with “dreaming” at all. It was more about the search for associations. When you’re awake, you can just stare and stare at things and fail to see the core concepts that configure them. In sleep, at least when you’re not preoccupied by dreaming, you can perhaps see a bit further into the nature of things.


October 15, 2007 10:49 AM


Nels said:

Thanks for this entry! As someone known for sleeping late (I went to 10:30 this morning) who has friends who say they only need four hours a night, I need this!