Sleep deprivation ranks among the most beloved torture methods of dictators, religious cults, Inquisition leaders and garden-variety sadists. Roughly two years ago, when the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”—the genteel expression for torture—it revealed that, along with waterboarding and rectal feeding, the agency has a soft spot for sleep deprivation.
Most of us have not experienced the astounding cruelty of state-sanctioned torture, knock on wood, but we are familiar with the far less horrific experience of school- and job-related lack of sleep. Recent studies suggest that even this less extreme variety of sleep deprivation has real consequences, and some experts say, as a culture, we’re scheduling the day all wrong.
Among those voices is Paul Kelley, a neuroscientist and research associate at Oxford University’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute. Kelley believes work and school days generally begin too early and run counter to the natural circadian rhythms of adolescents and adults under the age of 55. He says all that lost sleep causes big problems that can ultimately pose “threats to health, mood performance and mental health.”
“At the age of 10 you get up and go to school and it fits in with our nine-to-five lifestyle,” Kelley told attendees of last year’s British Science Festival, according to the Guardian. “When you are about 55 you also settle into the same pattern. But in between it changes a huge amount.”
While we’ve been culturally conditioned to suck it up and get on with it, so to speak, the good doctor says you can’t simply override millions of years of evolution where sleep is concerned. For starters, “[y]our liver and your heart have different patterns and you’re asking them to shift two or three hours,” according to Kelley. “We cannot change our 24-hour rhythms. You cannot learn to get up at a certain time. Your body will be attuned to sunlight and you’re not conscious of it because it reports to hypothalamus, not sight.”
Instead, he suggests, work days should start “around three hours later, which is entirely natural.” That sounds like a solution we can all get on board with; a sacrifice we should all be willing to make for the sake of science.
“Staff should start at 10am,” Kelley says, according to Buzzfeed News. “You don’t get back to [a natural 9am schedule] starting point until 55. Staff are usually sleep-deprived. We’ve got a sleep-deprived society. It is hugely damaging on the body’s systems because you are affecting physical, emotional and performance systems in the body.”
“This applies in the bigger picture to prisons and hospitals,” Kelley adds. “They wake up people and give people food they don’t want. You’re more biddable because you’re totally out of it. Sleep deprivation is a torture.”
Kelley also thinks school hours should be modified to better sync with the “internal clocks” of most students, and says the adjustment will allow their brains to follow. The scientist believes optimized learning for a 10-year-old would mean a school day that begins after 8:30am. For 16-year-olds, the day would start at 10am and college students would have their first class at 11am. The former head teacher of a middle school in his native England, Kelley shifted the days’ beginning from 8:30am to 10am, after which he says top grades increased by 19 percent. He posits that a similar time shift in other schools could help push up grades by 10 percent.
To test this idea, Kelley has launched a project called Teensleep along with neuroscientist and Oxford University colleague Russell Foster and Harvard Medical School professor Steven Lockley. The pilot project and study will compare how students fare in schools with traditional early start times versus those that begin at 10am.
Kelley isn’t the only one calling for schools to get things rolling later. As the Atlantic noted in a story last year, both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that schools schedule classes later in the morning so students can get the necessary sleep they need to make the most of the learning day. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has even said it might not be such a bad idea. An Atlantic-cited study from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement seems to offer yet more support for letting kids get more sleep:
Researchers analyzed data from more than 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming and found that shifting the school day later in the morning resulted in a boost in attendance, test scores, and grades in math, English, science, and social studies. Schools also saw a decrease in tardiness, substance abuse, and symptoms of depression. Some even had a dramatic drop in teen car crashes.
As the CDC notes, 42 states report their public schools begin before 8:30am, while 40 percent of high schools around the country actually start before 8am. School days beginning that early might allow younger students to get the sleep they need, but studies show natural shifts in circadian rhythms result in older kids going to sleep later and later. Adolescents and teens aren’t lazy; their biology is changing a lot and sleep is part of that. Yet there remains fairly strong resistance to changing school hours, with opponents citing multiple reasons for keeping things the way they are. Some experts suggest that refusal to consider the benefits is just another symptom of our culture of overwork.
“I get tired of the argument that these kids have to do all these activities and community service and therefore can’t start school later,” Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, told Scientific American. “The issue is not the start time. It’s that the students are overly busy. There is too much pressure to cram it all in just to have a good resume to get into college.”
Whether or not you believe our work and school days should get off to a later start, one thing isn’t up for debate: most of us aren’t getting nearly enough sleep. In fact, a 2013 Gallup survey found a whopping 40 percent of American adults get less than the recommended allowance of seven to nine hours of sleep a night. The CDC cites insufficient sleep as a public health issue. And the UK’s National Health Service reports that one third of Brits don’t get the sleep they need. It is, Kelley puts it, a “huge society” problem, and pervasive cultural notions are hard to change.
“This is an international issue,” Kelley laments. “Everybody is suffering and they don’t have to.”