In hindsight, my high school Algebra teacher may have been certifiably insane. The first day of class he wandered off on a tangent about a Medieval prince who loved his sleep. This prince loved his sleep so much he decided to sleep five minutes longer every night: 8 hours, 8 hours 5 minutes, 8 hours 10 minutes … until he slept over 24 hours. Then, he died. Class dismissed, Professor continued. Don’t forget the quiz on polynomial expressions this Thursday.
I asked around, and no one has ever heard of this prince’s cautionary tale. I did, however, find a bizarre news story about 15-year old British girl named Louisa Ball. My friends sleep through half of every class (but still get better grades). And I’ve been known to sleep through flights. But Louisa sleeps through entire family vacations. Louisa is stricken with a rare disease called Kleine-Levin Syndrome, dubbed Sleeping Beauty Disease, that makes her sleep for weeks. Her longest snooze was 13 straight days. Baffled doctors can’t stop it, so Louisa’s parents must her wake up once a day so she can eat and use the bathroom.
In spite of Louisa’s affliction, people today sleep less than ever before. According to an American Cancer Society study, Americans slept 8 hours a night in 1960. Today? 6.7 hours. That’s a groggy 15% drop in sleep within 50 years—despite NBC’s late-night lineup’s best efforts. In our defense, our grandparents/parents didn’t have the following distractions: sensationalized 24-7 news-cycles, Red Bull, the Internet, and late-night SportsCenter reruns. National Geographic pegged the costs of our national “sleep debt” at $15 billion dollars in health care expenses and up to $50 billion in lost productivity (or Syria’s nominal GDP).
As usual, our grandparents were right. Eight is the correct answer for number of sleep hours. Sleep more than that and you are more likely to die sooner. A University of California San Diego psychiatry study found “sleeping more than 7 to 8 hours per day has been consistently associated with increased mortality.” But beware of sample bias here. The guy who sleeps 11 hours a night is more likely to be lazier and/or unhealthier.
Sleep less than 8 hours and you are more likely to be a) cranky and b) fat. Scientists observed a hormonal correlation between sleep deprivation and obesity. The hormone ghreline triggers your appetite and is found in higher concentrations in sleep-deprived people. Another hormone, leptin, lets your body know when it’s full and was seen in much lower levels in the under-slept.
I know what you’re probably thinking, Kirstie Alley, and we’re not buying it. It’s not your lack of sleep that’s the problem. It’s the lack of occasional light jogging. And you just eat too much.
It is the only time in my life I will ever pity Leonardo DiCaprio. Sure, he is Hollywood’s Golden Boy, and, at 35, he’s decades younger than George Clooney and Tom Hanks. And, oh yeah, he’s on-and-off with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover-model Bar Refaeli.
But poor, poor Leo. You can just picture him preparing for “Inception”. Waking up from his Egyptian 1000-thread-count sheets, sending Bar off to her latest Turks & Caicos photo shoot, and then hunkering down to read every book on dreaming and sleep he could find. There was just one problem. Leo would not be in a normal dream world. He’d be in director Christopher Nolan’s. And Christopher Nolan spent the last decade architecting it.
“This was Chris Nolan’s dream world, and he had his own set of rules and his own structure to it,” Leo lamented. “So I needed to understand what that Rubik’s Cube was in his mind. It took months to tap into how my character directly related to these different levels of the subconscious.” Leo somehow pulled it off after recycling his jangled “Shutter Island” acting jitters, but Christopher Nolan was the real star. At last.
You see, Christopher Nolan wanted to make “Inception” a decade ago. But he realized to create the movie on the scale and grandeur it deserved he would have to cut his teeth with a couple For-Them studio blockbusters. So Nolan bided his time. He aced “Batman Returns”, then ho-hum shattered the opening weekend box office record with “Dark Knight”, and he finally had his For-Him movie. And Youtube had a new mash-up favorite:
Nolan briefly speculated “Inception” could eclipse “Avatar” as the highest grossing movie of all time. He wisely backed off. Scoreboard: “Avatar” $2.75 billion, “Inception” $655 million. But “Avatar” is a mere kid’s movie by comparison. There are two types of movies. There are movies you look at (“Avatar”, any flick with Megan Fox) and then there are movies you watch. “Inception” is the rare blockbuster that satisfies both. A masterpiece whose mind-bending, CGI Penrose stairs are girdered by Descartesian and Jungian pillars.
“Inception” is more fact than science-fiction. You can influence your dreams. Christopher Nolan experimented with designing his own dreams since he was 16. It’s called “dream incubation”, and novelists do it all the time to inspire narrative break-throughs. In a one week-long study, college students stared at homework problems framed on their night-stands before going to sleep. 50% of the students dreamed about the problems and 25% solved them. Yet 100% of the students were believed to be lousy conversationalists at the Saturday football game.
Group dreaming is still the stuff of misty Shaman legend. But dreams within dreams (within dreams, within dreams) do occur—though they were found in less than 1% of studied sleepers. False awakenings in different layer dreams have also been observed. And it’s true. You never remember how your dream starts, because your short-term memory does not convert into long-term memory during deep REM dream sleep.
Leo wasn’t just acting when he said what feels likes hours in your dream span only seconds in real time because of intense neural brain activity. When you die, it’s been reported the brain experiences up to 12 minutes of this same neural activity. This could feel like years, decades, even millennia. Couldn’t this endless dream, then, be forever?
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When Bill Clinton was at Georgetown, a saner professor told him great people conditioned themselves to sleep 4-5 hours a night. The simple reason being: you get more done. Bill Clinton applied the theory in his dorm room that night and remembered it well during his famous all-night pizza meetings at the White House. (Warning #2: The Bill Clinton Sleep Schedule is not to be confused with the Bill Clinton Sleeping Around Schedule.)
When I was on a high school tour, the scruffy tour guide mused you can attain two of three things at school. You can 1) learn a lot, 2) meet interesting people, and/or 3) get great sleep. I never saw the kid again. I didn’t even get into the school. But I never forgot his tip. And I don’t understand why anyone would pick any combination other than 1) and 2).
Stay up late, my high school buddy, always said. Just stay up late. And the less compelling the reason, the better. “Mad Men” marathon at 12:27 AM? Watch. A random Spice Girls reunion concert on a school night? Go. The most intriguing conversations happen then. These are the times when the “remember the time…” stories are minted.
“Those were the days” adults reminisce wistfully about school. And those Raman Noodle-fueled late-nights? Those are the hours. I can’t tell you anything about my high school papers except they probably had “needs more development” and B+ scrawled in red ink on them. But I recall every vivid detail of our spontaneous sledding trip the night before finals.
After a while, my buddy said, you almost hate sleep. You see those restless, toss-and-turn hours as the most wasted hours of all. So give me 4 or 5 hours, a shower, and let’s get on with it. Today You grumbles at Yesterday You for a while. You may say something odd in 9 AM Marketing class. But then you remember the impromptu 1:17 AM dance party or the roommate’s spot-on George W. Bush impersonation. You laugh maybe a little too loud to yourself, in maybe a little too packed library or Subway car. Then you sigh: time to prove your worth a damn. Crack the menacing Capital Markets book. And go out and earn tonight.
So that the next morning you can grumble at the blaring alarm clock: not again.