Friday, January 11, 2013

Sleep and Dreams

                I was a bit surprised to realize that I had not posted on my blog for a month. I say “a bit” because it wasn’t a total shock. The week before break is always crammed full as I wrap up certain things, and the week back is a whirlwind. Plus I think during the break I detached from school more than I have before. I did a few essential things, but spent very little time checking email (and even less responding), scanning Twitter (and none Tweeting), or perusing blogs (and not even jotting down ideas for my own). I didn’t do much thinking about school at all.
                So what did I do? I spent more time with my wife and children. I exercised more than usual. I played with our delightful new kitten. I had a Christmas day snowball fight with my son (yes, in Dallas—second time in the past few years). I read purely for pleasure. I watched plenty of soccer matches. We saw Les Mis and Lincoln. My wife and I had marathon viewing sessions of Lost. I slept more and better than usual; I even napped a couple times.  Often I simply was.
                This near-total hiatus was not planned or in any way intentional. Perhaps that is why it happened; it’s the whole “best laid plans” notion. In fact, I had some things that I had planned to accomplish, but I simply let them go as, in some ways, time got away from me in the best sense. It was almost a new form of flow, feeling transcendent while not being too caught up in anything.
                I think it also happened because my body and mind were screaming, “Give us a break!”  Not from any particular item, but from a series of stressors over several months. And before you jump to conclusions, remember that extreme positives also stress the system, just in a different way.  For me, such situations manifest themselves in less and worse sleep. I’d compare my situation to a sleep study cited in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock. Adults’ sleep was shortened to six hours per night. After two weeks they reported they were doing fine. Yet on a battery of tests, they proved as cognitively impaired as someone who had stayed awake for 24 straight hours (44). I know that for a while I simply was not functioning at my best.
                Of course, most of us know from experience that lack of sleep means poorer functioning…even if we like to claim it doesn’t. The reason is simple. As John Medina explains in Brain Rules,
The bottom line is that sleep loss means mind loss. Sleep loss cripples thinking, in just about every way you can measure thinking. Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge. Eventually, sleep loss affects manual dexterity, including fine motor control (except, perhaps, for pinball) and even gross motor movements, such as the ability to walk on a treadmill.
                When you look at all the data combined, a consistency emerges: Sleep is rather intimately involved in learning. (163)
Two questions are thus begged. How, beyond the obvious, is it involved in learning? What are the implications for our hard-working, highly-scheduled children?
                According to NurtureShock, sleep loss weakens the body’s ability to extract glucose from the blood stream. This is the body’s essential energy stream. Without it, the brain suffers, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as orchestrating thoughts to fulfill a goal, predicting outcomes, and perceiving consequences. A tired brain also more easily becomes stuck on wrong answers, even known wrong answers, without being able to develop another solution. Furthermore, sleep is when the brain shifts portions of the day’s learning to more efficient storage regions of the brain. This occurs particularly during stage 2 non-REM sleep, a slow-wave period without dreams. In short, “[t]he more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night” (34).
                As for children, they spend about 40% of their sleep time in that slow wave stage, or about ten times what adults spend. Meanwhile, a young person’s brain is very much a work in progress until around age 21, with much of that taking place during sleep. Some scientists even theorize that sleep loss in children can cause permanent damage in brain structure. It may also be tied to ADHD and obesity.
                Yet children simply do not enjoy enough sleep. NurtureShock contains some concerning statistics. Half of all adolescents average less than seven hours of sleep per night, and children of all ages get an hour less sleep each night than they did thirty years ago. Not surprisingly, 60% of high school students report extreme daytime sleepiness. Yet 90% of American parents believe their child gets enough sleep. I wonder how these numbers compare to the statistics in independent schools such as mine, with such a focus on achievement.
                Many points contribute to this sleep loss. Overscheduling of activities, heavy homework load, lax discipline, technology in the bedroom, ignorance regarding the issue—plenty of blame can be doled out proportionally depending on the particular situation. Culturally, we also seem to take pride in claiming we don’t need much sleep.
                Ironically, often we sacrifice sleep—or that of our children—for the sake of chasing dreams. At some point we all must ask, in seeking that proper balance, “At what cost?” My recent awakening in response to that question has left me in better shape to not only go after those dreams, but to fulfill them. Isn’t that what we want for our children?

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