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The science of sleep

As two BBC documentaries revealed this week, we really need those 40 winks; without them, we'd go mad.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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Sleep is one of those subjects that episodically throws up the kind of contradictory reports for which newspapers are famed. It is like caffeine, alcohol, sugar, carbohydrates, protein, saturated fats and unsaturated fats: one week we are told that too much of it is bad for us, the next we are informed that not enough of it is deleterious to our health.

The press loves unwittingly confusing and scaring us, as was witnessed by the announcement this month that we should eat more eggs, and not, as we have been previously told, fewer. (On a slight tangent, I loved a recent headline in the Daily Mail that said ‘Facebook Gives You Cancer’.)

Similarly, I’ve always been a bit confused and neurotic about the amount of sleep I should get. As a teenager, I was an insomniac, who could survive on six hours of bad sleep, but since I heard stories about lack of sleep triggering epileptic fits, and that tale of Keith Richards staying up for nine days before collapsing and breaking his nose on an amplifier, I became convinced that I needed more sleep.

Never mind that I have since come to understand that sleep-deprived epileptic fits are usually triggered by the use of amphetamines, I still remain to this day a hypersomniac. I can easily snooze for 10 hours in a row, and at a push, 12. Perhaps this is because I find dreams fascinating, and especially those episodes of hypnagogia – the period in which you are still awake, but start experiencing bizarre, random and surreal hallucinations – and hypnopompia – that similar period you have as you begin to awake, except in this case you can control these quasi-dreams.

My neurotic perception of sleep deprivation was alas reaffirmed by Make Me… Stay Awake (BBC1, Tuesday). Presented by Michael Mosley, it told us the story of a man who, after staying awake for three days, went into WalMart, bought a rifle, and shot himself in the head. I wonder what Daily Mail headline writers would have made of this story.

While not quite a narcoleptic, Mosley declared that he does find himself dozing off far too frequently, and it was his mission to see if he could conquer this predisposition, and to test himself as to how long he could avoid the land of nod.

Mosley journeyed to New York to visit a man called Tony Wright, the world record holder for sleep deprivation, who once stayed up for 11 days. Unlike certain members of the Rolling Stones, he claims not to have relied on drugs to achieve his feat, but apparently stayed awaked by eating raw vegetables, a diet allegedly similar to that of our forest-dwelling ancestors. Wright looked like a hippy – indeed sounded like a benign, childlike hippy – and his insinuation was that our customary eight hours sleep per 24 is a recent invention, necessitated by modern capitalism. My own theory is that Tony Wright is simply a freak of nature.

Still, under Wright’s tutelage, Mosley sought to stay up for as long as possible. After 42 hours, now losing his balance, his speech slurred, and clearly very unhappy, he called it a day (night?), angrily told his camera crew to shove off, and retired to bed.

Undeterred, Mosley ventured to Prince Edward Island in Canada, to meet a bloke who uses a drug called Modafinil to stay up for 100 hours at stretch. Having ingested the drug himself, Mosley, to his delight, found that it worked marvellously, and he managed two days of complete lucidity with apparently no psychological or physical side-effects. There were only two problems, however. First of all, he was in one of Canada’s most boring places. And with no one to talk to and nowhere to go, he spent the nights aimlessly walking the streets. Secondly, upon awaking, Mosley found he was covered in peculiarly alarming blemishes, which, he was told, could provoke an anaphylactic shock should he continue to take the drug. In conclusion, Mosley resigned himself to his fate, accepting the fact that he just needs a bit more sleep than your average Joe.

The notion that biological bodyclocks vary was explored earlier the same evening on Horizon: The Secret Life of Your Bodyclock (BBC2). It told us that teenagers need more sleep than children and adults (hardly a revelation), but alas it didn’t explain why ‘Teenage Zombies’ or ‘Morning Zombies’ as it described them, needed more kip. It also informed us that the best time to go to the pub is between 5pm and 7pm, which I always thought was common sense, but, scientifically, the explanation is that this is when our body clocks are at their most alert, and can thus process alcohol more effectively.

I had always assumed that you feel tired after lunch because the blood from your brain is diverted to your digestive system, but it seems your bodyclock naturally slows down in the middle of the day, and that the mid-afternoon siesta, rather than being an example of typical southern European laziness, is ideally suited to humans’ internal bodyclock.

Although there were further fascinating insights, such as how chrono-biology is being used to treat Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, or how 25 per cent of car crashes are caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel, Horizon was altogether slightly bitty, sensational and even tabloid. It posed the question: when is the best time to have sex, to which the scientists replied that they didn’t know. Cue salacious and pointless image of a couple having sex. Then there was revelation that we are most likely to have a heart attack between 6am and 9am, with one talking head offering the scaremongering foreboding that if you were still alive by midday you were one of the lucky ones.

If Horizon: The Secret Life of Your Bodyclock were a magazine article, it would appear in Focus or in a Sunday supplement, rather than the New Scientist or Scientific American. It was informative, yet dumbed down, just as Make Me… Stay Awake was entertaining yet pointless.

Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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