28 April 2011

Who needs sleep?

So I kind of promised you a sleep post.  Why not do it while sleep deprived?

Mostly I’m going to do this without looking anything up at all, which means it’s coming straight off the top of my head and is probably hugely incorrect.  But that’s fine because you’re the one taking sleep advice from a writer.  Okay, a neuroscientist.  Maybe because of that whole ‘science’ bit you think I have some sort of authority on this matter and my words are truth.  Well, until I’ve got that ‘Dr.’ in front of my name you better be careful what you believe.  My current degree’s a B.S.  Work it out.

So sleep.  It’s really a good thing for you to have.  Have a lot of it.  But not too much.  Don’t be afraid to take naps.  Even a six-minute nap can help you consolidate—

Ooh, consolidate.  That’s a good word.  In memory-research-speak, the word ‘consolidate’ means ‘take a freshly-experienced new memory and work it into something more permanent and solid in your head.’  You need sleep to do this really effectively.  Sleep-deprived study subjects suck at all sorts of cognitive tasks compared with their well-rested peers – even if we’re just talking about a short nap between learning and test, you see this effect.  And everyone’s heard about how sleep deprivation is equivalent to being super drunk in terms of reaction time and critical thinking skills.  This is why our culture is so disastrously misguided for pushing our pilots and doctors as hard as we do.  I don’t get it.  No one wants to die of Sleepy Pilot Syndrome, right?  (That’s a real thing.  Look it up.  If it’s not a real thing, make it one by searching it a zillion times in Google.  We could make a Wikipedia page or something.  Or put in on Facebook.  Then it really will be real.)

Let’s just talk about how totally out of whack you get when you don’t sleep, eh?  That’s the fun part.  There was this guy Peter Tripp, he worked for some radio station (I told you I was doing this from memory…) in the fifties I think and for the March of Dimes charity he decided to break a world record and stay up the longest anyone had ever stayed up before.  I think he stayed up for like nine days.  Okay, I lied.  I looked it up and it was 201 hours.  That’s 8.375 days (full disclosure – I looked that calculation up, too).  But by the time he was through he was hallucinating all sorts of things and getting really kind of paranoid and whatnot, and people who knew him said he just wasn’t quite the same afterward.  Like ever again in his whole life, afterward.  This is not an uncommon experience for people who stay up really, really long periods of time.

In a way the long-term effects of extreme sleep deprivation look kind of like a frontal lobe lesion (I am writing this note to myself: I must talk about lobotomies in a future post).  People lose their critical thinking abilities, they become more ‘irrational’, they make poor decisions on all sorts of things from a mundane to a life-altering scale, and they seem kind of socially impaired in that they’re uninhibited and impulsive.  Sleep is such a magical thing, isn’t it?

You know what, it’s as simple as this: If you stop sleeping, you die.  There are real disorders out there like this, where people stop sleeping and die.  I looked up the one I couldn’t remember the name of: Fatal Familial Insomnia.  It’s even got the word ‘fatal’ in the name!  (Can you imagine getting that diagnosis?  “Yes, we’ve looked over your charts and we feel that you most likely have Fatal Familial Insomnia.  I’m sorry to say your prognosis is not all that good.  But you probably figured that out already…”) 

This is seriously very serious stuff.  That’s why psychologists make such a big deal out of insomnia.  Get your insomnia checked out.  Don’t die prematurely.

To drive this point home I’m going to cheat again and tell you something I told a really fantastic group of adolescents in a talk once:
Rats kept awake indefinitely develop skin lesions, hyperphagia, loss of body mass, hypothermia, and eventually fatal septicemia.[37]
I think I stole this from Wikipedia (oh, yes I did, that’s where all the links go!).  The point is that all these things are terrible horrifying things to have happen to you and I’m not kidding, if I don’t get a good night’s sleep then by two a.m. I’m bloody starving and my face feels somewhat akin to what a cratered moon surface would feel like if it was simultaneously swampy and flaky.  That’s not a good feeling.  After just one all-nighter I’m all of two commas away from fatal septicemia.

Okay, I’m tired of writing and I’m tired in general.  And being tired is clearly to be avoided.  So I’m off to bed!  Thanks for listening.

Sweet dreams!  This little love’s name is Nippet, by the way.  Yes, like the baby ewok.  She’s an absolute doll but alas, she’s not mine.  Fawning is nevertheless appreciated.

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