This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Many of us know people who say they need very little sleep to function.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, we can...

INSKEEP: Some...

MONTAGNE: ...we know a couple.

INSKEEP: Some people who work on this program. Other people may have heard stories about Condoleezza Rice or Martha Stewart or Bill Clinton - the list goes on and on - who need only four or five hours of sleep, so it's said. At the same time, if you ever talk with a sleep researcher, he or she will tell you that most people, except for a tiny group, need at least seven hours, and preferably more. And if they consistently get less sleep, they are putting themselves, and maybe others, in danger.

So NPR's Margot Adler examines the difference between what our culture tells us about sleep and what doctors and scientists are telling us.

MARGOT ADLER: I started thinking about this story a couple of decades ago when I arrived at the expensive New York City brownstone of the then-publisher of Penthouse magazine, Bob Guccione. His secretary showed me around. One of the 100 top private art collections in the world adorned the walls: Renoir, Degas, Matisse. In the basement, a Roman swimming pool with classic columns.

The secretary maintained the art was collected, the pool designed, all in the early morning hours, since Guccione only needed four hours of sleep.

Ever since then, I've wondered about the story we hear over and over again about the successful CEO or government official who needs practically no sleep and has all this time for unbridled creativity.

Think of the scene in the film "Thank You for Smoking." Nick, the PR guy for the smoking industry, is talking to a Hollywood mogul, who calls him up late at night.

(Soundbite of movie, "Thank You for Smoking")

Mr. AARON ECKHART (Actor): (As Nick Naylor) Hello.

Mr. ROB LOWE (Actor): (As Jeff Megall) Thought I'd give you a little update.

Mr. ECKHART: (As Nick Naylor) Hi. Are you still at the office?

Mr. LOWE: (As Jeff Megall) Do you know what time it is in Tokyo right now?

Mr. ECKHART: (As Nick Naylor) No.

Mr. LOWE: (As Jeff Megall) 4:00 p.m. tomorrow. It's the future, Nick. No, that's London calling. Seven a.m. in the old empire.

Mr. ECKHART: (As Nick Naylor) Jeff, when do you sleep?

Mr. LOWE: (As Jeff Megall) Sunday.

ADLER: In that one scene, we not only have the myth that lack of sleep equals success, but we have the notion that our fast-paced global culture is to blame, where news, financial markets, and of course conference calls take place 24/7.

Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a sleep researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, says today people take pride in not getting much sleep, especially in America.

Dr. EVE VAN CAUTER (University of Chicago): Sleeping as little as possible is viewed as a badge of honor here, and something that everyone should try to achieve.

ADLER: There are short sleepers, people who can do with, let's say, five hours of sleep a night. But most sleep researchers say they comprise maybe less than 10 percent of the population.

Dr. David Dinges, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says yes, short sleepers exist.

Dr. DAVID DINGES (University of Pennsylvania): The question is, are they nearly as prevalent, number one, as is claimed in society? And number two, are they special?

ADLER: And third, says Dinges, some people who say they are short sleepers are really getting more sleep than they think.

Dr. DINGES: Sleeping in the limo to the airport and that, and they just don't, quote, "count that" because it's not in pajamas and not in bed. Or they are actually under-sleeping and dosing themselves heavily with caffeine and falling asleep in meetings and when they are driving, but they consider that to be so normal they no longer define that as a needing sleep.

ADLER: Dr. Van Cauter says if you want to understand how sleep deprived many people are, just get on a morning flight.

Dr. VAN CAUTER: I find it remarkable that if you board an airplane at 11:00 o'clock in the morning, within minutes of boarding, one-third of the plane is fast asleep.

ADLER: The myth is that short sleepers run the world. At Juliana's coffee shop where I get my morning cup of joe, lawyer Carol Schrager(ph) and Professor Evangeline Morphos(ph) show me just how prevalent this desire is to do away with sleep. Sleep, says Morphos...

Professor EVANGELINE MORPHOS (Columbia University): It's a waste of time if you take more than five hours to sleep at night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MORPHOS: You can be on eBay, you can be reading.

Ms. CAROL SCHRAGER (Lawyer): My daughter, who has a life-threatening disease, when I asked her if there's one thing you could change about yourself physically, I expected her to say she'd get rid of her life-threatening condition. No way. She'd say I would abolish the need for sleep so I could get more done.

ADLER: It's hard to get good statistics on how much people slept historically compared to now. But you only have to go back four or five decades to be in a very different world, where the test pattern came on the television at midnight, and you heard the national anthem, and there was nothing else to watch, and there was no online shopping at 2:00 a.m. either.

Dr. Van Cauter says in 1960, the National Cancer Society surveyed more than a million Americans. And as part of the survey, there was a question about sleep duration. The average, people said, was eight and a half hours. Today, says Van Cauter...

Dr. VAN CAUTER: Sleep duration varies between six and seven hours, rarely exceeding seven hours in any poll. The data are limited, but they strongly suggest that over the past four or five decades, that sleep duration has indeed decreased by an hour and a half to two hours.

ADLER: And Dr. Van Cauter even wonders about all those famous people who supposedly don't need sleep. She notes that Bill Clinton, a notorious short sleeper, had heart surgery in his 50s with no obvious risk factors.

Researchers like Dr. David Dinges say if we put you in the sleep lab and restrict your sleep, chances are it will only take a few days until you show some serious impairments. But you may think that you're fine.

Dr. DINGES: People will often say, oh, I'm good to go. And it is that disconnect between your ability to introspect your alertness and impairment and how impaired you actually are cognitively is why we think a lot of people believe that they're doing just fine when in fact they're not doing so fine.

ADLER: Cliff Sloan is the publisher of Slate magazine. He says he needs only five hours of sleep, although his wife gets eight hours and would love 10.

Mr. CLIFF SLOAN (Publisher, Slate Magazine): And she is somebody who loves sleep and thinks it's absolutely insane that I'm not indulging in one of life's greatest pleasures.

ADLER: Sloan regards his early morning hours as a special gift, a time when the world is peaceful and his mind is clear. Although he admits to some embarrassment when he sends those early e-mails and wishes he could change the time stamp.

Mr. SLOAN: So it would look more normal and like I was sending e-mails at a more normal time than I really was.

ADLER: But he says his long-sleeping wife is extremely productive, so it's ridiculous to posit a link between success and lack of sleep. Cliff Sloan may be one of those unusual people who don't need so much sleep. Although Dr. Dinges says I always say to these people, come to my lab and find out for real.

Some sleep researchers say the amount of sleep you need also depends on your work. Political leaders, for example, might require less sleep since they're always engaged, constantly shifting attention, and changing focus.

Dr. VAN CAUTER: This person comes in and then it's another group and then they move to a different location. If, on the other hand, you have to get on the road and drive on a flat highway for four hours, sleepiness will overwhelm you.

ADLER: Van Cauter says we are in a period now similar to where we were with smoking 20 years ago. Twenty years from now, she believes, knowledge, research, and even litigation - perhaps against sleep-deprived drivers - will combine to change public perception so that lack of sleep is seen as dangerous, not something to aspire to.

But Dr. David Dinges says it may not be so easy to change public perceptions.

Dr. DINGES: We are the ones who came up with artificial light and skyscrapers and going to the moon. This notion of getting more done behaviorally in less and less time is extremely attractive to most of us.

ADLER: So even knowing that sleep restores us, improves our immune system, allows us to be emotionally more stable, wanting to do with less sleep may be a very human characteristic.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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