Let's Hear It For Sleep!

Does sleeping well make you stupid? Thomas Edison thought so. For Edison, who claimed to sleep no more than four or five hours a night, slumber was a purely indolent waste of time that robs us of vigor, ambition and intelligence.

"We hear people talk about loss of sleep as a 'calamity,'" Edison said, "They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunity."

It's hard to argue with Edison on this point; I mean, the light bulb, the phonograph, the moving picture - can you name a more productive guy? (Of course, his argument loses some oomph when you discover, as biographers have done, that perky old sleep-basher Tom napped through his days like a house cat.)

Sleep: An Un-American Activity

Nevertheless, Edison's low regard for sleep struck a distinctly America chord: Sleep is unwholesome, sleep is a waste, sleep is pretty close to an Un-American Activity.

It's an attitude that resonates still. For example, consider this excerpt from Stanley Coren's fascinating book, Sleep Thieves, in which a straight-shootin' software company V.P. explains how he welcomes new employees to the firm:

"When I first hire them, I tell my programmers that around here we look at sleep as a bad habit," he says. "It is unproductive and should just be considered 'downtime' for the brain. I let them know right off that if they are going to be successful in this company, they're going to have to do it with a lot less sleep."

"Well, hoo-hah! Sign me up and pass the java!" Seriously, if you want to appreciate the ringing ignorance of that statement, try translating it into a reference to eating. (What sane manager, for Pete's sake, would expect his employees to work more efficiently when underfed?)

That's right, sleep is as important as nutrition. Or exercise. It's something our bodies need to survive. Some especially civilized countries have recognized this fact for centuries and have made the siesta an honorable and restorative tradition. But in our fractious and competitive land, we insist on dismissing long, restful slumber as an indulgence that stands in the way of productivity and success. Ironically, the more we surrender to all the blustering, take-no-prisoners, sleep-is-for-losers hooey that's in the air these days, the more we become a nation of irritable, stressed-out, fuzzy-headed bumblers.