This semester, Graham Radman ’09 devised a strict schedule for optimizing his energy so that he can stay awake most of the day. He takes three 20-minute naps, generally at 12:30, 5:30 and 10:30 p.m. Then he sleeps for three hours, usually from 3:15 to 6:30 a.m. (allowing himself an extra ten or fifteen minutes to fall asleep).
So far, he is enjoying the extra time his new schedule has given him. “I’m the kind of person who has a lot of hobbies and a lot of things I want to do,” he said. “I waste a lot of time, but it takes the stress off when you can waste a lot of hours of the day and still get everything accomplished anyway.”
College students often cheat the body of its eight “required” hours, but many Yalies transcend the sleep-deprived schedule of the average college student. To call your cycles odd here, you’ve got to go beyond the 2, 3 or 4 a.m. bedtime and the multi-weekly all-nighters that might earn you recognition elsewhere. Sleep deprivation at Yale comes in varied and unusual forms, from ambitious regimentation to insomnia to operating on Tokyo time.
For some, an abnormal schedule is a deliberate decision, a response to Yale’s workload. And they’ve found their expectations—and their physical well-being— to be surprisingly malleable. Radman said he has been getting three hours a night, plus naps, for about a month and a half. “Before that, I’d basically have to get nine hours a night to be happy,” he said. “I would just feel tired all the time. This gives me more time to do all my work, which I’m really happy about, and it doesn’t make me a zombie or anything.”
After a two- or three-week adjustment period, his new schedule didn’t make him tired, although he did have to make some changes. He can only exercise at certain times of day, since he usually needs to sleep afterwards, and he had to cut out caffeine completely, since it makes it hard to nap.
Chase Olivarius-McAllister ’09 has also started sleeping less this year. She usually does two all-nighters in a row twice a week—and she doesn’t nap. Naps would slow her down, she said.
In a typical week, she will stay up Monday and Tuesday, catch up on sleep Wednesday, sleep moderately Thursday, and stay up Friday and Saturday (except for Saturday afternoon). She spends most of her all-nighters in Connecticut Hall.
Her long periods of wakefulness are often devoted to writing—once she gets on a roll, she tries to get it all down at once. “I like it at night when you walk around public places, and they’re empty,” she said. “It really clarifies your thoughts.”
Others among the chronically mal-synchronized have no choice in the matter. Matt Lucas ’10 developed insomnia since this September, his first at Yale, and he is still trying to figure out why.
“Four nights a week I can’t sleep at all,” Lucas said. “Mostly I sit on the couch and do Sudoku or try to do some paperwork. It makes for long weeks.”
He speculates that the city noise of New Haven might be a factor. “Something that you really sense coming from Oklahoma and especially from where I live out in the country, is that it’s never quiet [in New Haven],” he said. “There are people out all the time. Even at four in the morning, there’s traffic and sirens…there’s never silence.”
Lucas has tried to adjust other factors in his schedule—reducing caffeine intake, for example—but to no avail. “I don’t even drink pop anymore, and I try to limit coffee to before noon,” he said. “Then, after the caffeine was gone, I thought it was stress, but I’m not stressed about anything. I don’t know what it is.”
Several years ago, stories circulated about a member of the class of 2005 who slept twenty hours a day, having trained himself to hibernate. Ben Barasch ’09 hasn’t taken it quite that far, but he sleeps like a cat: he generally gets 10-12 hours a day on weekdays and 12-14 hours a day on weekends. And he gets most of those hours while the sun is up: he goes to bed between 4 and 6 a.m., taking a three- or four-hour nap in the afternoon.
While he gets all the sleep he needs, Barasch said the unusual hours he keeps have caused some friction in his personal relationships. “When I’m at home I rarely see my family because they are awake while I’m asleep and vice versa,” he wrote in an email. “My sleep habits were very taxing on a relationship I was in. My girlfriend was furious because we could never do things during the day together since it was impossible for me to get out of bed before evening.”
Sleep abnormalities can involve more than sleeping at strange times. Matt Gummess ’08, for example, is a snoozer. Every nine minutes when his alarm goes off, he climbs down from his top bunk to press the snooze button and climbs back up to continue sleeping. And he can keep it up for hours.
“I gave up the snooze button for Lent, but yesterday I pressed it for five hours,” he said a couple of days after he returned from Spring Break.
Jon Mabry ’09 has no problems getting up in the morning, but anyone who’s seen him nap might have noticed something unusual: he sleeps with his eyes open. “I remember my cousins first telling me about it when I slept over their house when I was ten years old,” he said. “They were basically like, ‘You know you sleep with your eyes open? That’s pretty creepy.’ It’s not like I’m like an owl. It’s the whites of my eyes and a little bit of the pupils.”
Barasch and Lucas, too, have noticed some odd sleep-related occurrences. Barasch said he often wakes up drenched in sweat for no apparent reason, and he has vivid nightmares regularly. Lucas has at least one memory of hallucinating while sleep-deprived.
“One time I was driving back from Hartford one evening, and I would’ve sworn—I was almost positive—that there was a man walking along the road,” he said. “But as I got closer to it, it was just a sign reflecting off my windshield. That’s when I decided to go home and take a nap.”
Sleep deprivation can certainly mess with the mind. As Sky Masterson, the fictional gambler in Guys and Dolls, put it, “I know the night-time. I live in it. It does funny things to you.” But it can also mess with the body, in ways most college students tend to ignore.
According to Dr. Francoise Roux, Associate Director of the Yale Center for Sleep Medicine, sleep deprivation has serious psychological and physiological consequences—among them memory impairment, decreased attention span and even increased blood glucose levels.
Personality is affected as well. “People can become more aggressive, irritable, a little paranoiac when they’re sleep-deprived,” Roux said. “You imagine things.”
While Roux said the center treats few undergraduates (she primarily sees adults, most often for Obstructed Sleep Apnea, which occurs when people repeatedly stop breathing at night), her research has made her familiar with the dangers of sleep loss, which must be taken seriously, she said.
Scholars often compare the effects of sleep deprivation to those of drunkenness. According to Roux, sleep deprivation starts to resemble intoxication once someone is sleeping less than four hours a night. “If you drive when you’re sleep-deprived, it’s nearly as bad or even worse than drunk driving,” she said. “That’s why residents have an increased risk of motor accidents after being on call.”
The physical consequences of sleep loss have undergone increased scrutiny in the last decade. Scientists have recently found evidence linking sleep deprivation to alterations in metabolism and appetite, and damage to the body may be long-term.
In a 2005 study entitled “The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism,” Eve Van Cauter, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, and her colleagues found that chronic partial sleep deprivation caused a decrease in glucose tolerance. Less than one week of sleep deprivation resulted in higher blood glucose levels—what Van Cauter described as “a pre-diabetic state”—for subjects who were young and healthy, suggesting that sleep loss may put individuals at risk for type 2 diabetes.
In addition, Van Cauter’s subjects displayed an increase in appetite that was highly disproportional to the rise in calories need to stay awake. “Sleep restriction was associated with reduction in leptin (the appetite suppressant) and elevations in ghrelin (the appetite stimulant) and increased hunger and appetite, especially an appetite for foods with high-carbohydrate contents,” she wrote.
People who are sleep-deprived will therefore eat far more food than their bodies require and may experience significant weight gain. According to Van Cauter, the rise in obesity during the second half of the 20th century corresponds with a self-reported marked decrease in sleep duration. “Taken together, the current evidence suggests a possible role for chronic sleep loss in the current epidemic of obesity,” she wrote.
Van Cauter’s study also linked sleep loss to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, students who are not sleeping due to stress—one of the leading causes of sleep deprivation—may just be making the situation worse.
Roux said these physiological effects can influence academic performance and socialization. Adolescents often experience Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome—they go to bed late, wake up early, and sleep late on weekends—and this puts them at odds with the rest of society. “They are out of phase with the rest of the world,” Roux said. “They usually get the hours of sleep they need, but sometimes it can lead to failing grades because they can’t get up to go to school or to some social adaptation because they don’t get out to see their friends so much.”
Indeed, as Barasch saw, a nocturnal schedule can make it hard to maintain normal relationships. But Yalies who prefer the night may be comforted to note that they are not alone. Late one Wednesday night during midterms (a period that, as far as I can tell, stretches from a week after shopping period to shortly before finals), I visited some residential colleges to see who was up. The nocturnalites are out there; they’re just dispersed.
Around 3:30 a.m., I met Liam Andrew ’08, who was writing an Art, Music & Theory paper in the Branford Common Room. He was accompanied by a large can of Monster—what he drinks to get him through all-nighters—and he was starting to feel the pressure of his paper’s impending deadline.
I left Andrew to his misery and walked over to Saybrook, where I found a more relaxed crop of children of the night. Nate Scherer ’10, working calmly with his headphones on, seemed to view his nocturnal tendencies as the most natural and logical thing in the world, at least for a college student. He said he sleeps four hours whenever he gets tired—usually once a day, sometimes twice. His four hours often land from 4 to 8 p.m.
But Scherer said his sleeping habits have nothing to do with Yale; he was sleeping this way by the end of high school. “I find if I attempt to sleep more, I feel more tired,” he said.
Wandering up to the Saybrook library, I met Peter Maxwell ’08, who is also often up at this hour: he goes to bed at 4 or 5 a.m. most nights. Unlike Scherer, though, Maxwell is adjusting to a heavier courseload this semester: he is taking four seminars and Constitutional Law, which means that (except when he has to wake up for Con Law, which meets at 11:30 a.m.) he can sleep late–-so he gets about as much sleep as most students. “I’m just shifted,” he said.
But if some students, like Maxwell, stay up to meet the deadlines of a demanding schedule, and others, like Radman, choose sleep deprivation over decreased productivity, most I talked to felt their sleep habits weren’t in their control. They slept (late, little, or too much) because that was the way their bodies seemed to function.
Sleep specialists emphasize the importance of sleep hygiene—activities undertaken during the day to promote effective sleep—especially when it comes to combating problems like insomnia. Most sources say to exercise and avoid naps during the day; avoid exercising or stimulants less than an hour before sleep; sleep only in the bedroom and use the bed only for sleep; sleep alone; keep temperature constant, the bedroom dark, and surrounding noise minimal; and maintain a stable sleep schedule.
But many of these things are not possible with a college courseload and the city lights and noise of New Haven. Lucas said he finds his habits frustrating, but there is little he can do. “There are times when you know you feel tired, and you know you should be sleeping, and you just can’t fall asleep,” he said.
Still, he adds, there is a plus side to insomnia. “You get a really good rapport going with the Starbucks people because you’re in there every morning at 6:15,” he said. “They get to know your schedule.”