Tired brains in need of a good night’s sleep

The installation of a sleeping pod in the University of Manchester library follows hard on the heels of the University of East Anglia’s sleep room and no doubt heralds a new era of beanbags, futons and chaises longues popping up on campuses across the United Kingdom.

But does this mean the UK is finally taking care of its students’ sleep, or is it an indication that ­students are now so sleep deprived that universities are having to provide for those who cannot get through the day without forty winks?

The cognitive benefits of a nap are well documented, most notably in Sara Mednick’s popular book Take a Nap! Change Your Life. We know that as little as six minutes’ sleep can not only sharpen thinking, but also improve memory, mood and mental flexibility. Leonardo da Vinci famously lived on 20-minute naps for weeks at a time while painting to avoid the oil paint from drying. Based on this evidence, fashionably progressive ­companies such as Google and Ben & Jerrys have installed sleeping pods or created sleeping spaces in the workplace.

The danger of such a benevolent approach, apart from the growing evidence of higher mortality in habitual daytime nappers, is that it masks, and even contributes to, a problem with overnight sleep. The benefits of a full night’s sleep are similar to naps, but on a much larger scale. Deep sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and even lighter non-REM sleep have all been firmly implicated in learning and creative thinking, to the extent that parts of the brain responsible for memory, facts and events are known to shrink with chronic sleep deprivation.

In 1978 just 24% of students reported sleep problems, compared with 68% in 1992 and 71% in 2007. Evidence suggests that this is not solely down to greater awareness and an increased willingness to report problems. In 1969, college students in the United States got a healthy 7.5 hours of sleep a night; by 1989 this was just 6.5 hours.

Sleep quality is also ­suffering. About 60% of students in one 2010 survey showed poor sleep quality (as measured by the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index – the most widely used measure of its kind), a finding ­echoed in other recent studies. The problem is not limited to the Western world; groups as diverse as business students in Hong Kong and medical ­students in Saudi Arabia report a lack of good-quality sleep.

Of concern for educators is that poor sleep is inevitably accompanied by poor academic performance. The most sleep-deprived Saudi Arabian medical students were also those who showed the lowest academic performance on all tests. A recent US study showed that university grade point average scores were related both to sleep duration and quality, with more than half the students in the study exhibiting clinically poor sleep.

In the competitive educational atmosphere of China, where even primary and middle school students are chronically sleep-deprived, according to recent reports, the culture remains firmly of the view that time asleep is time wasted. “Wake-up clubs”, in which students wake each other up with an early morning phone call, are widespread. One student remarked of her colleagues: “If I am able to wake 10 minutes before them, then that’s 10 extra minutes I have in my day.”

In the era of students as customers, this situation is only likely to get worse: university health centres publish leaflets telling their students to get a proper night’s sleep, but their libraries are compelled to open 24/7 during exam periods.

The sleeping pod is a quintessentially British compromise: the university can believe it is taking action to help and the student can feel empowered to stay up later. –

© Guardian News & Media 2015

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