Woman sleeping with head on a table

I am not that smart

I need my eight hours of sleep. One night of tossing and turning and I’m sluggish the next day. Two of these nights and I start bumping into doors. Things tend to get a bit more bizarre after a longer period of sleeplessness: once inhibition is lost, my internal jukebox starts to play. And I can tell you; the songs that swirl around my brain are far from groovy. What I intend to say is: I know exactly when I’m sleep deprived. And I know that state doesn’t match well with doing science.

According to a podcast by David McRaney in his aptly named series You are not so smart, I am not that smart though. Two experts in his recent podcast state that sleep deprivation not only diminishes your cognitive skills, but also your ability to register this dumbing down is happening. Instead, your dumbness becomes your new normal and you start to assume that you don’t need that much sleep. No, you’re that special person. You know, that person who can effortlessly power through sleepless nights yet write the most elegant of prose the next day.

I am not that special though. When I look back at some of my writings, I can always tell when sleep deprivation started to creep in. In a sense, I’m special because I know I’m not special.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, about half of adults in the USA and UK are not getting enough sleep (i.e. < 7 hours per night). Rest assured, this doesn’t mean half of the population stumbles around like zombies. However, the most sleep deprived usually have the most responsibilities. Think about CEOs, politicians and physicians. And what about scientists? With our cogs constantly turning and our regular travelling between continents? How many mistakes are we making due to a blunting of our minds? How much rubbish are we writing while thinking we’re headed for the Nobel Prize? Scientists with kids must be particularly in the danger zone. Because let’s be honest: who can still break down a complex formula when having spent half the night mixing the similarly named baby food?

Soon I will start to investigate this empirically. In complete unison with the research tradition at my department, I will take an idiographic approach. The subject of this n=1 study being me. I will stay at home and deprive myself of sleep for months. Naturally, all in the name of science. Then I’ll come back to work and sleep deprive myself a bit more while trying to write new publications, grant applications, and columns. If the experts are right, there will be a sharp decrease in the quality of my work. One slight problem: I might not notice that myself. Therefore, I will need to crowdsource the outcome measurement to you. So, if my columns start to deteriorate from this point on, let me know. Gently. Or now that I think about it, maybe don’t. Just let me believe that I’m really special. That I’m capable juggling between being a mom and a scientist. If only for a while, let me enjoy that one perk of sleep deprivation: not knowing that I am not that smart.

This column was written for the newsletter of the Research School of Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences

Picture: Courtesy by Sander Martens

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