Tuesday, September 05, 2006

How much sleep is enough?

How much sleep is enough?

Human beings are biological animals and so the answer to this question is pretty well known. Five hours is the absolute lower bound, with six a more satisfactory lower limit for most. Devoting more that eight hours to sleep is probably wasteful, though young people need more. Young lovers, newly married couples and the exceptional older couple that has sustained a degree of intimacy may spend more time in bed, but not all of the time devoted to sleeping.

Human beings are shaped by intellect and spirit as well as biology. These three forces that shape us are not necessarily aligned. Paradoxically, the profession that knows most about human biology and in which the need for attentiveness is greatest is also may be the least rational when it comes to sleep. Young interns are compelled to work in an almost constant state of exhaustion, though it is widely recognized that this is harmful. The tradition continues in at least some medical specialties – surgery for one – after the period of intership is completed. The justification seems to be an unexamined mix of perceived economic necessity and tribalism. When inevitable mistakes are made by exhausted interns, the tribal elders cover them up or make an example of a young man or women, striving to do his or her best under near impossible circumstances.

Another profession with equal attentiveness requirements, though less knowledge of biology is military service, especially the Navy. As a young shipboard naval officer, my duties included serving as officer of the deck during both special sea detail and general quarters. On occasion, my duties conning officer spanned twelve to 14 hours or more, broken only by an occasional bathroom break. I can remember one evening, when my ship was conducting night plane guard operations after a day of combat drills when my attentive moments were broken by hallucinations. I was pumping myself full of coffee and nicotine to stay away. Why didn’t I tell the captain I was simply to exhausted to continue. That simply was not done in the navy.

Well… being an academic, when I start writing about something that seems simple, I tend to go on an on. What I mostly was reflecting on, this morning, was how much more effective and especially how creative I am when I do get enough sleep; and how often I push the limits, with predictable consequences.. I am little different than my 18 – 20 year old neighbors in Anderson hall who are conducting similar experiments with sleep and multiple personal, academic, public service and recreational commitments that seem imperative. On my best days I turn in about 10 and arise about 4:30 with a 15 – 20 min power nap at mid day. But I am always pushing the limit the end of the day. The next morning and throughout the next day, diminished effectiveness is the price I pay.

I should be more tolerant of those who have created the circumstances in which doctors and military persons function and of the students who continue to grapple with what appears to be a long standing, unsolved, human quandary.


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