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.

Let's Hear it For Sleep: The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

One in three Americans say they don't get the sleep they need. It would be comical, see, if it wasn't causing so much harm. For example, a study funded by the U.S. National Commission on Sleep Disorders found that in 1988, sleepiness- related accidents — including auto, train and aircraft crashes — killed 24,000 people and disabled 2,474,430 more. The total cost of sleep-related mishaps that year: $56.02 billion and 204,650,000 days of productive work lost. More recently, scientists estimated that fatigue contributed to 10 to 20 percent of all accidents in all modes of transportation. (So much for sacrificing sleep as a shortcut to success.)

Disastrous Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation has also played a sinister role in some of the most terrible disasters in recent history, including Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the wreck of the Exxon Valdez and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.


In the case of the Challenger, for example, the investigating committee blamed not only the famous faulty O-rings, but also the severe sleep deprivation of the NASA managers involved, who according to the commission were too muddle-headed from lack of sleep to properly understand important O-ring data supplied to them during a telephone conference with manufacturer Morton Thiokol. (Two of the three managers involved had had only three hours sleep apiece for three consecutive nights before making the fateful decision to launch.) Meanwhile, our highways are crowded with glassy-eyed truckers struggling to make deliveries on time, and our skies are full of pilots on killing shifts who are flying long past the point of mental exhaustion.

Sleep as Patriotic Duty

There's no dodging the fact that all this groggy-eyed mayhem grows out of our deep lack of respect for the power and importance of slumber. Edison was wrong: It's folly to cheat the sandman. It's dangerous. And, considering the damage it does to our national well-being, it may be unpatriotic.

Well there's a thought — maybe it's your patriotic duty to get a good night's sleep! And maybe we can help. In fact, I think I'll just devote my next dispatches to some basic, nuts-and-bolts advice that should help you sleep more soundly. We'll show you how to buy the right mattresses for you and your family; we'll discuss how light levels can dramatically affect your sleep; we'll talk about noise levels and what you can do to make your bedroom quieter, and we'll show how the wrong temperature can adversely affect your slumber.

The collective professional term for these issues is sleep hygiene. And no, we're not talking about how often you launder your pj's. We're talking patriotism through dozing, remember? But hey, this is America, and crisp, clean pjs never hurt.