Monday, February 13, 2006

Sleep Deprivation

It's my own fault, really. Sitting up too late at night, after I've done my writing for the evening, reading discussion boards and blogs. You'd think I'd known better than to go to bed at 11:30 when I have to get up at 5:30 the next morning. The cats romping around didn't help, either, nor did the DH's snoring. Wear earplugs. Sure. Earplugs don't cut out those bass rumbles. Nor does a pillow over one's head. Only a sharp poke and a, "Roll over!" is effective -- for a while.

So today I'm running on something less than six hours of sleep. If I were in the military, where they claim that sleep is overrated, I'd be praised. But today's Olympic athletes know something that the military would like very much to ignore: no one can perform at their peak when they are sleep deprived.

Athletes, who will do anything to squeeze out that extra edge, to be just a fraction of a second faster than their competitors, know the value of sleep. They know from hard experience that if they don't get enough quality sleep, their performance is affected.

Nor can one "get used to" shorter hours of sleep. We think we can. We get up an hour earlier, or sit up an hour later, and function on six or seven hours of sleep. The fact that we can function at all fools us into thinking that we're doing okay, that we've adjusted to less sleep. But a sleep-deprived brain is no qualified judge of our own performance. Objective tests show that when people get less than a full 8-9 hours of sleep, their performance goes down. Students who pull all-nighters frequently think they're getting more work done, when in fact the quality of their work declines, and it takes them longer to get the same amount of work done because they can't concentrate as well as someone who is properly rested. Learning is affected, too, because sleep has been shown, in scientific studies, to be instrumental in fixing learned material into our brains.

Folklore and military machismo are no places to learn the facts about sleep and human physiology. Instead, turn to Stanley Coren's Sleep
, a look into the scientific study of sleep. Coren describes his own ill-fated attempt to get along with less sleep, and discovered, through his journals, that when he stole a few hours of sleep from each night in an attempt to use those hours for greater productivity, his real productivity actually dropped. He got far more done when he was well rested, in much less time.

Hence sleep deprivation need not and should not be part of the writer's life. When the blank page mocks us, when we sit up and pound our foreheads for ideas, when our writing seems trite, it may not be writer's block. It may be sleep deprivation.

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