The Science of Sleep and the Art of Productivity: Dr. Matthew Carter (Transcript)

Dr. Matthew Carter – TEDxNorthAdams TRANSCRIPT

I’d like to start by asking you to imagine yourself in the following scenario: you are a high school senior, or the parent of a high school senior, and you’re interested in a potential college, and so you arrange for a campus visit.

And you go on a campus tour and everything looks great, and the people are friendly. But after a few minutes, something strange starts to dawn on you: that this campus has a really horrible smoking habit.

Everybody you see is smoking outside, everybody smells like cigarette smoke. In fact, you go to have lunch in a dining hall and students are actually bragging about how much they smoke.

One student says, “Yesterday, I smoked three packs all by myself!”

And another student says, “Nice! I did that last week. High five!”

And you think to yourself, “Well, this is pretty strange. This is an otherwise great school, but they have sort of a weird bad habit, and they’re oddly celebrational about it. So I’m not sure I want to go here.”

So imagine you go on a second campus tour and you look at a second college. And it’s very similar to the first: the campus looks really beautiful, people are friendly — except this college has a bad junk food habit.

Everybody you see is eating junk food; there’s junk food wrappers everywhere; there’s nothing nutritious to eat in the dining hall. And again, people are bragging about how much they’re eating.

So, one student says, “Last night, I had a whole pizza by myself.”

And another student says, “Nice! I did the same thing last week. High five!”

So, if these two scenarios sound a little far-fetched, imagine a third scenario as you go visit another college.

And again, it looks really great, the people are friendly, except that at this college, everybody looks tired. You see people falling asleep at their computers.

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You visit a class and people are dozing off in class, and it just generally looks like everyone could use a great nap, right?

So, what’s crazy to me about this is that I’ve never seen a campus full of people who are all smokers, or a campus full of people who are all sleep-deprived, but a campus full of people look tired and — or, sorry, a campus full of people who all eat junk food, but a campus full of people who are all sleep-deprived and tired describes every college and university I think that I’ve ever seen, and actually most high schools as well, especially during later parts of the semester.

What’s interesting is that the effects of being sleep-deprived all the time can be just as bad as smoking and just as bad as eating too much junk food. And yet lots of students would actually choose to go to a college where everyone looks sleep-deprived because it looks like it’s a really hard-working college, where people are very productive and achieving great things.

And so, as a sleep researcher, I’ve been fascinated by the biology and neuroscience of sleep for over a decade, and I have a lab at Williams College that studies mice. We look at what happens in the brain and the body during sleep. We look at how the neurons in the brain control sleep.

But I have to say, as a father, as a teacher, and as a colleague to a lot of hard-working colleagues, hard-working people, I have a new-found fascination for how we tolerate sleep deprivation as a society. And it’s not just students in our schools. It’s really everywhere.

Whenever I ride public transportation, whether it’s a bus or a subway, I see people who just look exhausted. And in fact, you can see people taking naps on their morning or afternoon commute and sneak them in.

In our public life, it’s really not uncommon to see people dozing off, and in general, in our public and professional lives, people really just look exhausted.

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But something is even crazier than that to me, which is that not only are people exhausted, but some people choose to be sleep-deprived and some people actually wear it as a badge of honor, right?

Because in order to be sleep-deprived, you must be really hard-working, you must have a lot of important things to do, and you must be very, very productive, or else why would you be sleep-deprived in the first place?

I’ve actually been a part of job committees where job applicants will brag about the fact that they only get three or four hours of sleep a night.

And actually, just a couple of months ago, I was looking at Facebook, and one of these memes that somehow just shows up in your feed for no reason, I read it — it had tens of thousands of likes, and it said, “No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they had plenty of sleep,” the implication being that if get plenty of sleep, you’re somehow missing out on your life’s greatest potential and in all the things that you could be doing.

And so, this is really interesting to me, and I wonder, actually, if people would brag about the fact that they’re not getting enough sleep if they knew that the health benefits of getting sleep were just as important as the benefits of not smoking or the benefits of eating good nutrition and not eating junk food.

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