The Art of Sleep

By Marshall Wong

Marshall’s note

Amidst the pandemic, with increasing exposure to screentime, one would often find oneself lying wide awake on the bed. After a restless night, the alarm would finally buzz and one would reluctantly crawl out of bed. One would roll up the blind in misery and started staring blankly at the soothing ray of sunshine that shines right through the window. One looked at oneself in the mirror–– dark eye circles, baggy eyes, dry lips. One became anxious about sleep but the more one worries, the more lied awake one is. The “one” is not a particular individual, but rather an epitome of students during this pandemic. Long-hours of screen time, inactivity, and school work have messed up everyone’s sleeping schedule. I know many people appreciate the importance of sleep but simply don’t know-how. Hence, I’ve decided to conduct an interview with Dr.Baxter, who has done thorough research on sleep a couple of years ago. 

Dr. Baxter’s interview 

Opening Comments

Before I begin, a quick word about circadian rhythm, which I will refer to a number of times; this is the intrinsic system that controls sleep, encouraging sleep at certain times and discouraging at others. In his book, The Universal Pastime, Richard Horner (2014) discusses sleep, and the existence of the circadian rhythm, with an evolutionary perspective, explaining that we have evolved over millions of years, responding to natural day/night cycles – and our bodies are adapted to that environment. Only since the industrial revolution (a tiny fraction of the human evolution timeline*), have we disrupted this and started keeping different hours. Basically, our brains and bodies are not designed to function in the hours modern life often dictates. “Humans are the only living things to ignore, disrupt and coerce the cycles of our natural cellular machinery to conform to …artificially imposed schedules” (p. 21). 

*If we consider the start of natural history until now as a 24-hour period, the time since the start of the industrial revolution is equivalent to five one-thousandths of a second!

Richard Horner clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z3FCs5j52o

  1. MW: What are the factors contributing to poor sleep?

MB:

There are a large number of factors that can contribute to poor sleep, but probably the most prevalent in our student community would be:

  • An irregular sleep schedule/staying-up too late
  • Caffeine consumption too close to bedtime 
  • Exercise too close to bedtime (while it is generally good for promoting sleep, too close to bedtime can be detrimental)
  1. How does sleep affect day-to-day performance?

This is well summarised by Wahlstrom (2002): “Sleep deprivation is associated with information processing and memory deficits; increased irritability, anxiety, and depression; …decreased creativity and ability to handle complex tasks” (p. 173). For longer term effects, Walker (2018), lists a wide range of consequences of sleeping less than six or seven hours, including a compromised immune system, increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure, weight gain (p. 4).

  1. Is there a recommended sleeping length for teenagers?

Yes, Adolescents need 8.5 to 9.25 hours of sleep per night (National Sleep Foundation, 2013). My own longitudinal study of Year 11/12 boarding students (1-2 years ago) recorded an average sleep duration of about 6 hours and 45 minutes – and they are the students with zero commute each day!

  1. How does the use of technology affect sleep?

I’d say in two ways:

  • The distracting nature of devices, interrupting the desire to sleep; i.e. watching Netflix, playing games, using social media, are more interesting than the idea of sleeping. Having phone notifications on during the night can also disrupt sleep.
  • The ‘blue light’ emitted from devices can confuse the brain into thinking it is daylight, upsetting the circadian rhythm (I’m not sure how effective the ‘night mode’ on phones is in reducing this)
  1. Does napping affect sleep? 

Naps have been found to be beneficial, if limited to 25-45 minutes; they can improve alertness and performance (Wolfson, 2002). However, having a long sleep during the day can upset the circadian rhythm.

  1. Can you give any advice for students on improving sleep quality?

Aim to go to sleep at 11pm each night (or earlier if you can) – have a wind-down period before bed, turn lights down (reading from a non-electronic source is good). Plan to sleep for the recommended time if possible. Lost sleep can never really be made up through a sleep-in on the weekend (although it can help a little), but beware of throwing your sleep cycle out by sleeping-in for too long. Using a smartwatch or fitness watch can be helpful in demonstrating how much sleep you are getting and the quality of that sleep; the information can be quite detailed and informative.