RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Many of us know people who say they need very little sleep to function.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, we can...
MONTAGNE: ...we know a couple.
INSKEEP: 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: 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")
AARON ECKHART: (As Nick Naylor) Hello.
ROB LOWE: (As Jeff Megall) Thought I'd give you a little update.
ECKHART: (As Nick Naylor) Hi. Are you still at the office?
LOWE: (As Jeff Megall) Do you know what time it is in Tokyo right now?
ECKHART: (As Nick Naylor) No.
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.
ECKHART: (As Nick Naylor) Jeff, when do you sleep?
LOWE: (As Jeff Megall) Sunday.
ADLER: 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.
EVE VAN CAUTER: Sleeping as little as possible is viewed as a badge of honor here, and something that everyone should try to achieve.
ADLER: Dr. David Dinges, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says yes, short sleepers exist.
DAVID DINGES: 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.
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.
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...
EVANGELINE MORPHOS: It's a waste of time if you take more than five hours to sleep at night.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORPHOS: You can be on eBay, you can be reading.
CAROL SCHRAGER: 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: 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...
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: 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.
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.
CLIFF SLOAN: 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.
SLOAN: So it would look more normal and like I was sending e-mails at a more normal time than I really was.
ADLER: 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.
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: But Dr. David Dinges says it may not be so easy to change public perceptions.
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: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
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