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Sleeping Tactics Must Be Learned in Time

Column by Brett Altschul

Nearly everybody at MIT jokes about how much sleep students here miss. Still, Idon't think the incoming freshmen really have any understanding of the semi-permanent somnolence that goes part and parcel with an MIT education. I laughed a lot at the sleep deprivation jokes when I first arrived here, with no conception of the reality that lay ahead.

Before I came here for college, some of my most creative ideas came to me in dreams. That's no longer the case. Since arriving at MIT, I've largely ceased to dream. My sleep periods generally don't exceed one hour, so I never make it to REM sleep, when dreaming occurs. I've trained myself to sleep for about 45 minutes, then wake up. It really helps on those days when I have a single open hour during the afternoon. Irush back to my room, fall asleep, awaken in three-quarters of an hour, and have just enough time to find a seat in my next lecture before the professor begins his monologue.

Quite early on, I realized the most important thing about sleep at MIT: When you feel really tired, it's not worth trying to remain awake. When you're about to doze off, you do lousy work, and you'll waste most of your remaining energy keeping yourself fully cognizant.

The second big point takes a much longer time to learn. Some places are good places to sleep; some places are terrible. Every student needs to decide which are which for him, mostly by trial and error. I had many trials and more than a few errors.

I immediately chose never to doze off during a lecture. It's a matter of personal pride for me that the last time I fell asleep in school was during officially sanctioned "nap time" when I was about three. However, no other portion of my daily routine has consistently defied the god Hypnos.

One morning, I was awakened in an Athena cluster by another student. As I opened my eyes, my face felt rather sore, since my left cheek had been attempting to pick up a permanent imprint of the backspace key. I began to thank the student for his kindness in ending my unpleasant nap. He waved off my thanks; he just wanted to know whether I was finished with the computer or not. Neither the hospitality of the clusters nor the pillows provided by Information Systems impressed me much.

Isometimes sleep in the offices of The Tech (indeed, it was an early evening nap in one of the newsroom's uncomfortably straight-backed chairs that inspired me to write this column). However, I spend relatively few senseless hours in our office compared to some of the other staff members. One editor kept an extra bar of soap in the newsroom for those frequent nights when he lay face-down on the boardroom sofa.

On occasion, I've grabbed the chance to catch 40 winks during a Lecture Series Committee movie. There are two kinds of films that prompt me to lose consciousness. Sometimes I allow myself to doze off briefly during movies that I've already seen because I already know the story, and I can afford to miss a few minutes of the plot development in exchange for greater alertness during the finale. Some films that I haven't already seen are so bad Ijust don't care what happens during the middle of the story. (I generally don't care what happens at the end either, but those films tend to culminate with a lot of gunfire and explosions, which makes it fairly difficult to sleep through the climax.)

For some reason, Ihave a great deal of trouble staying awake during the physics colloquia I attend. This can be somewhat embarrassing when I go to the colloquium with somebody else, like my physics professor, but other times it's an excellent opportunity to catch up on my rest. The speakers often display their quantum mechanical calculations on hand-scrawled overhead transparencies, using a mathematical notation that nobody outside their research teams is familiar with. Moreover, I frequently end up sitting behind some grungy neurotic who pays no attention to the lecture and spends the entire time muttering and making notations on a schedule of all the free talks in the Boston Area. His incoherent mumblings prevent my ears from making out what little of the lecture Iactually want hear. Without any meaningful sensory input, my brain decides to hibernate for a while.

With all these experiences in mind, I offer two pieces of advice for those freshmen with no idea what their sleep cycle will be like. First, don't kill yourself worrying about how you'll get enough sleep. You'll survive. A year ago, I would never have believed that I could adjust to the amount of rest Iget here and the irregular manner in which I get it.

Second, don't assume that you'll find a great system as soon as classes commence, either. At first, I had a fairly tough time getting enough sleep, but I adapted over a couple of months. It takes some familiarity with MIT's physical and temporal layout, plus a few unpleasant misjudgments, to develop a plan for strategic snoozing.