During my childhood in the mountains of China, I would often sneak into the factory where my father worked. After a morning of hard work making toys and sewing clothes, all employees would congregate in the dining hall to take a one-hour nap. I didn’t think much of it until I arrived at Yale, an institution at which, according to a proud Facebook fan group, “no one has slept seven hours since 1701.”
Starting that first September in New Haven, I, like most busy sons of Eli, with classes to attend, extracurriculars to join and people to meet, decided that sleep was for the weak. Less sleep, after all, meant more time for work, life and fun.
I don’t think I’m alone. Our society has become infatuated with the monetary value of time and, in turn, has fabricated, justified and immortalized staying awake. Sleep has become the implied arch nemesis of an industrious society, full of machines that never turn off.
Unfortunately, as the 112 members of the Facebook group might attest, we have bought into this belief.
The dangers are real. On Wednesday, Science Translational Medicine published a study at Harvard demonstrating that sleep loss has detrimental effects that persist even after we think we have caught up on our sleep. Worse, it shows that chronic sleep loss — defined as getting less than six hours a night for two or three weeks — affects performance more than pulling an all-nighter. Previous studies have shown that after 24 hours without sleep, a person’s reaction times and performance on tests can drop to the level of someone who is legally intoxicated. We’re probably not as efficient either; just look to the people sitting next to you in Bass — how many of them are on Gchat and Facebook?
While most of us know we should be getting more sleep, we also that we would have to make sacrifices to get it. We would have to give up getting more: more credits, more proof on résumé and more “you-can’t-miss-out-on-this!” events. The studies say otherwise, but, it seems, we want to believe that less sleep can truly help us realize our potential. We may commiserate with each other about how tired we are, but just a few minutes later, most of us would still willingly return to our lives as overachievers. We try to demonstrate our extraordinary stamina and with it the potential to lead the world (or, at least, Lower Manhattan). And let’s face it: it feels great to write 18 harried pages in 24 hours and still manage to get an A. No wonder Monster and five-hour energy shots have become so popular.
In short, we’ve pushed aside sweet dreams and slow breathing, and admire a life and a world that “never sleeps.” But I fear we may end up like that “too-big-to-fail” institution that boasts the same motto.
Perhaps, it is not only with banking that we need to go back to simpler times. People, it seems, used to know better: Shakespeare, for instance, liked sleep, calling it “great nature’s second course.” To Cervantes, sleep was all we needed — “meat for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, heat for the cold, and cold for the hot.”
With three weeks of sound sleep behind us, it is all too easy to forget the pain of the all-nighters of December, when sacrificing sleep seemed the only way to write term papers and cram for finals. But let’s hope that this semester, those painful memories can serve us better, as we decide how many classes to take and new extracurriculars to sign up for and how many parties to attend. We should remember to appreciate sleep truly as sore labor’s bath, hurt minds’ balm and a solace to all mortals, as our ancestors once did.
Welcome back to all, and to all a good night.
Robert Li is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.