The science of sleep, the sleep of scientists

Sleep is key to having a fresh mind, yet, many scientists do not have the luxury of a full night’s rest

Sleep. We all need it. From working long hours in the lab or field, researchers often get much less sleep than the average person requires. Conducting research into the twilight hours is prevalent in all fields of science, from life science to particle physics. But the cognitively demanding tasks of conducting experiments and analysing data require a clear mind. So how do scientists manage their research—let alone their personal lives—with little rest? Here, a few scientists share lessons about sleep they have learned from their life and work.

Teamwork around the biological clock

Unlike the typical nine to five job, an owl ecologist’s work day begins at sundown, when their avian subjects are most active. But for researchers who study the circadian cycle of organisms or particles in accelerators, experiments must often run day and night, due to high demand for such equipment. And let us not forget the mathematicians so engulfed in solving problems, they crunch numbers into the twilight hours. Sleep often take a backseat in science, but to manage sleep deprivation researchers in both physics and medicine say working with others prevents careless mistakes and wasted time. “Synchrotron measurements are intense because you get a limited amount of time to use the machine, so you want to take advantage of every minute,” says Karsten Rode, a Norwegian physicist based at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, who uses synchrotrons to characterise new materials.

Although their experiments run day and night, Rode and his group take advantage of the fact that people have different circadian rhythms: the larks take the early morning shifts and the owls run experiments at night. “You can’t go it alone,” says Rode. “Our experiments, science in general, have to be a group effort.” One expert concurs with the approach of Rode’s group: “For productivity it doesn’t matter if you’re an owl or a lark. You get the most out of your time if you just follow your own inner pattern,” says Urs Albrecht, a researcher of circadian rhythms at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

Working close to others also avoids wasted time. “If you’re awake for roughly 24 hours straight, it’s the same as having one promille of alcohol in your blood,” which is over the legal driving limit for most countries, says Päivi Polo, a physician and sleep researcher at Turku University Hospital in Finland. Just like an intoxicated friend who believes he or she is fit to drive, Polo says it is “sometimes difficult to see how sleep deprivation affects your ability to work efficiently and effectively.” Rested colleagues let her know when she’s mindlessly “moving things from one place to another without accomplishing anything,” and she does the same for them.

Adrenaline rush

One of the ways we combat sleep deprivation is through our body’s adrenergic system, which produces that adrenaline rush in moments of danger or excitement. This system turns on when we spot a lion, or for scientists, perhaps when their data beautifully matches their hypothesis. “If you have the motivation and excitement to work you can get over the fact that you’re dead tired,” attests Polo.

Albrecht emphasises that chronically overusing our body’s adrenergic system can have detrimental effects on health. “Your mood, metabolism and circadian rhythm [are] interconnected,” he says. “If we don’t live according to our own internal cycles, this [heavily disturbs] our metabolism,” he adds, [this then] “causes the development of metabolic diseases like obesity and mood disorders like depression.”

While enthusiasm is vital to the progression of science, Rode says scientists as a community need to get away from drastic levels of dedication. “Some people have this romantic view of researchers as committed only to the beauty of fundamental science. This is true to some extent, but it’s also a job,” he adds. “All of the researchers I know work much more than the 38 hours they’re paid for.”

Life lessons from research

Rode says shift work at synchrotrons may have given him a little head start when it came to learning how to be a father. “Some new parents try to keep a normal habit of going to bed at 10pm and getting up at 6am, but babies sometimes want to sleep between 6pm and 12am,” he says. “When you’ve done shift work before, you know that if you’ve got the time to sleep between six and midnight, then you learn to sleep then.”

As a scientist who studies the body’s cyclical pattern it is no surprise Albrecht sees the relationship between his work and life as a feedback loop. But maybe his insight could benefit all scientists. “My research impacts my lifestyle and my lifestyle impacts my work,” he says. “Almost every day at lunchtime, I go running. I move, I get [exposure to] light, I reset my metabolism and send a strong signal to my circadian system. This all helps me to sleep better. And when I sleep well, I’m a much more productive researcher the next day.”

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Albrecht is not alone in this view. Over one thousand years ago the ancient Greek philosopher Plato offered similar advice in his dialogue Timaeus: “When the mind is too big for the body its energy shakes the whole frame and fills it with inner disorders…when a large body is joined to a small and feeble mind…the soul is afflicted with the worst of all diseases, stupidity. There is one safeguard against both dangers, which is to avoid exercising either the body or mind without the other, and thus preserve an equal and healthy balance between them.”

How does sleep impact your professional life?

Is your efficiency impacted by the number of hours you sleep?

Photo credit: Sven Halvor Halversen


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Vanessa Schipani

Vanessa Schipani

With degrees in zoology, philosophy and the history and philosophy of science and clips from outlets in the United States, Iceland, Germany and Japan, Vanessa walks the line between science writer and philosopher. A polymath at heart, she publishes articles about a spectrum of disciplines, from quantum physics to cognitive science, but has a penchant for writing about what philosophy and biology can tell us about life. She's also worked as a photographer and written poetry and fiction.
Vanessa Schipani

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