Experimenting with Sleep

I don’t know where my fascination with the way in which the human brain works came from. I don’t know when it started. I’m excited to be living in these times when our knowledge in this area is growing faster than ever. So much of what we were taught in school about our brains and the way they work have been proven wrong, yet I hear people spout these old claims nearly every day. “You’re born with all the brain cells you’ll ever have,” is one of my favorites.

I recently read a Scientific American article about how long we can stay awake. This shattered one of those myths for me. I was taught that lack of sleep would inevitably lead to death within a couple of weeks. It turns out that’s only been proven for lab rats, not people. The story recalled an experiment I did a few years ago in an attempt to reduce the number of hours I slept each night. I read all I could find (and understand) on sleep research. I concluded that the important element of restful sleep was to be sure to complete a sleep cycle before awaking. The average sleep cycle is about 90 minutes, but my experimentation led me to conclude that mine was closer to 80 minutes, give or take a few minutes. I was sleeping about 5 and a half hours (4 cycles) so I lopped off 80 minutes to sleep 4 hours and 10 minutes. After a few days of adjustment, I was successfully functioning with this amount of sleep for a couple of weeks.

Just as I decided to lop off another cycle to sleep only 3 hours per night, the subject came up during a dinner party at my house. One of the women at the party was incensed at the idea that I would consider sleeping so little each night. She quoted me the oft-quoted but never proven requirement that we get 8 hours of sleep each night. And she quoted the research (that I now realize has to do only with rats) that sleep deprivation will kill you. Nothing I could say would calm this woman. She ranted on until I promised her that I would cease this self-experiment and return immediately to full nights of sleep (even though my original sleep volume was probably an affront to her).

I did abandon the experiment, mostly because I was having trouble filling the extra time since everyone else in my house was asleep so I had to be incredibly quiet. Now that I know there’s no lethal risk, I may try this experiment again. I could use a few extra hours in my day.


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