In June of 2011, few would have been able to predict the book at the top of The New York Times best-seller list. Adam Mansbach, the book’s author, had spent one too many nights pleading with his two-year-old daughter to go to bed and decided to write what he has called “a bedtime story for parents.” He called it “Go The **** to Sleep.” Combining vibrant tiger illustrations and profanity, the book sold more than 275,000 copies in less than two months. Today, you can listen to Samuel L. Jackson read the book’s rhyming stanzas on YouTube.
While GTFTS was originally a directive for stubborn toddlers, the book also offers valuable advice to Yale undergrads. “Whenever I need a laugh line at a group presentation, I tell students that they should sleep more,” said Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs. (Full disclosure: I’m a Communication and Consent Educator, so Boyd is my boss.)
It feels like everyone at Yale takes that fifth class, joins that third club, goes to Woads and makes everything fit by cutting back on sleep. This behavior is as common as it is self-defeating and unhealthy. People don’t succeed at Yale because of how little they sleep. They succeed in spite of it.
Sleep keeps you sharp. According to Dr. Josna Adusumilli, a neurologist and sleep expert at Mass. General Hospital, “Sleep is a vacuum cleaner. It gets rid of all the unnecessary details, filters out what is important and consolidates what is learned during the day.” Without it, the lines between a lecture’s central point and a peripheral footnote become blurred.
When we don’t get enough sleep, things get messy. A 2000 study from the University of New South Wales found that even “moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally proscribed levels of alcohol intoxication.” Earlier this spring, the New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova wrote that even getting six hours of sleep, over the course of two weeks, has us acting like we have a 0.1 blood alcohol concentration. We’re doing the metabolic equivalent of pregaming our rehearsals, regattas and econ problem sets.
Our emotional intelligence also tanks when we don’t get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation inhibits our ability to process strong or complicated emotions, both ours and other people’s. Most people know this from personal experience, but there’s clinical evidence too. A 2015 UC Berkeley study found that sleep affects our ability to read faces, often leading us to see friendly or neutral expressions as threatening.
You will meet, or already know, really smart people who say they can work with 4 or 5 hours of sleep (you might even be one of these people). This isn’t impossible, but it’s more likely that they’re running on fumes and don’t realize it. According to research by Dr. David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania, chronically sleep-deprived people lose the ability to appraise their own fatigue. When your lab partner tells you that they’ve recovered from their all nighter with a nap and a Red Bull, take it with the same grain of salt as the classmate who stumbles up to you at Toad’s and slurs he or she is “not drunk at all.”
Sleep also keeps us healthy. Though the magnitude is unclear, a consensus has emerged within the medical community that sleep deprivation has an adverse effect on several of the body’s major organ systems. For one, it taxes our circulatory systems. A 2010 study from the American Physiological Society found that when men with no history of heart problems were subjected to sleep deprivation, their blood pressures and heart rates increased in a matter of days.
The nervous system is affected too. A 2013 study out of Rochester University, offering an explanation for sleep’s role in neurocognitive maintenance, found that “metabolic waste products of neural activity were cleared out of the sleeping brain at a faster rate than during the awake state.” Sleep gives our brain a chance to flush itself of toxins like beta-amyloid, a molecule linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep deprivation also affects our endocrine system. A 2011 study on the link between sleep deprivation and obesity found that not getting enough sleep makes it difficult for our bodies to both break down common sugars like glucose and also regulate our appetite. Maybe our late-night Wenzel orders are a sign that we all need to get more sleep.
The common Yale attitude that you can’t afford seven-and-a-half hours of sleep has it backwards. You can’t afford not to sleep. This time is a small price to pay for health and full-functioning minds. It’s what the average adult needs. The Yale community doesn’t like to think of itself as average, but in this respect we are.
Nathan Kohrman is a senior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at email@example.com .