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

So, why are we so bad at this? If this is all true, then why, as a society, are we not good at this? And this is actually where I feel like the analogy between sleep deprivation, junk food and smoking goes down.

It’s because when people smoke or have junk food, they’re doing it for the short-term reward. It’s immediately satisfying when people choose to do those things.

But there’s nothing satisfying about sleep deprivation, like we’ve already talked about.

So why do people do it? And I ask my colleagues this, I survey students all the time, and the same three answers come up again and again and again.

One, we have busy lives and we’d like to get more done.

Two, we’re stressed. Stress and anxiety keeps us awake sometimes, and there’s lots of stressors in our life.

And three — and this is a very new trend — is that we’re addicted to our gadgets at night. We love looking at our smartphones, tablets, computers, and there’s all sorts of apps now that just occupy our time before we go to bed.

There’s email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, not to mention YouTube, Netflix, and a long list of great TED Talks that we can see.

So what do we do about all of this? And this is where I actually get some insight from the mice that we study in our lab, because it actually turns out that all animals need sleep, all animals get the same benefit of sleep that humans do, but it’s amazingly easy to keep a mouse awake.

To sleep-deprive a mouse, you don’t really have to do very much. If you want to stress out a mouse a little bit, you can give him a new roommate. Giving him a new roommate will keep him awake for a little while. Or you can move him to a different cage that he’s not used to, and the stress of going to a new home will keep him awake hours past his bedtime.

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You might ask, “What is the mouse equivalent of watching YouTube or being addicted to email?”

And it turns out we can duplicate this as well with something as putting a paper towel in a mouse’s cage — We wad up a paper towel, give it to the mouse, the mouse is entertained by this for hours. It’ll explore the contours of the paper towel, it’ll kick it around, it’ll play with it, and again, it’ll stay up hours past its bedtime.

So, the take-home point from this, I think, is that we’re hardwired to need sleep, but we’re also hardwired to be sleep-deprived at a moment’s notice based on stressful things and exciting things happening in our lives.

And it actually turns out when the mouse is playing with the paper towel, a surge of dopamine is being released in its brain. And the same thing happens when we scroll on a smartphone. Every time you swipe up on a Facebook post or an email or anything else, we actually get a little surge of dopamine in our brains, and that surge of dopamine keeps us awake.

So, what do we do about all of this, especially when we have a life that’s much more complicated than that of a mouse? You know, a paper towel is bad enough for a mouse, but we have all these nice gadgets now that we didn’t have ten years ago to immediately give us all these things.

So it’s here where I feel like I have three ideas worth spreading, and the first idea is that we need to just completely embrace sleep as a culture. We need to treat this as healthy, and no job applicant should brag about only getting three or four hours of sleep, no student should high-five another student in the dining hall for pulling an all-nighter.

And in general, we should just be much more sleep-conscious as a society. I actually went to a doctor a couple of weeks ago, and when I showed up at the doctor’s office, I had to check a little form about the healthy habits in my life. And there was a long list and it was things like, “Do I have a smoke detector in my home?”, “Do I wear my seat belt?”, “Do take a daily vitamin?”

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I thought this was a great list, but nowhere on the list was, “Do I get 6 to 8 hours of sleep a night?”

And I thought that it was very odd. We need to treat sleep as a health issue, just as much as smoking, or just as much as eating a balanced diet.

Number two is we need to relearn how to go to bed. It’s amazing — You know who the best sleepers are in American society? It’s actually our kids, which is funny because it takes a while to get them to sleep. But once they’re asleep, they actually sleep very soundly, and they have a nice quantity and quality of sleep.

And I think that that’s because we take the time to put them to bed properly. We brush their teeth, we give them some water, we change their clothes into their pajamas, we dim the lights, we read them a story, and this whole 30-minute, 40-minute process really prepares them for a great night of sleep. And they sleep very soundly once they finally go to sleep.

Can you imagine what it would be like to put our kids to sleep the same way that we put ourselves to sleep? If we gave our kids bright screens and said, “Play whatever you want for 30 minutes” — but maybe it’ll turn it in two hours — our kids would never sleep, and this would be really detrimental.

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