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Sleep Deprivation 101

Guest Column
Arjun R. Narayanswamy

It’s 4 a.m. on a Friday morning, and you haven’t slept properly for days. Fueled by stress and sugar, your body feels like it was built out of tight-strung piano wire, all a-jitter. Thinking is an effort, and talking is out. All you want is to finish the problem set, and then drop back for some sleep.

Sounds familiar? It probably does. Take a midterm, a design project and two problem sets; throw them into the span of a week and, voila! -- we have a recipe for a ‘hyper-nighter,’ the week from Hell. The exact details are immaterial because the general story is the same; no sleep for a week, three all-nighters in a row, living in lab or studio. MIT sucks, Tech is hell. Just walk into 34-501 tonight and you can hear a dozen different versions of this story.

This begs the question: why does everybody have a story like this? On first glance, it doesn’t seem to matter what your GPA is, or in what course you’re majoring. It’s common knowledge that chronic stress is physically debilitating, and that tooling without sleep is like scaling a killing slope. Yet MIT students repeatedly put themselves through the ringer -- three days, four days, even a week without sleep. Amazingly, SleepDep101 is a pre-requisite for graduation.

There are three main explanations offered for this phenomenon: MIT students do not know how to manage their time, MIT classes are intrinsically time-consuming, and MIT students drive themselves harder than possible. Students and administrators argue over the relative importance of each of these factors, but they accept that all three play a part, and that the end effect is very, very bad for you.

(I caution against explanations that place too much blame on time mismanagement by the students. Students who are admitted into MIT are no strangers to time-pressure; in general, we have demonstrated the ability to handle demanding schedules and diverse interests to an ample degree. It simply cannot be that these skills completely disappear for the course of a semester; it is more likely the case that even well-organized MIT students are swamped by the demands of MIT on a regular basis.)

Over the course of my three years at MIT, I remember two such ‘hyper-nighters’ vividly. My first was a week just before R/O 1999, when I was working International Orientation by day and hanging lights for the Musical Theater Guild by night. The second came when I miscalculated the length of a 6.170 project and spent an entire week with close to no sleep. By the end of the week, I was so tired I was literally shaking uncontrollably. One of the people I asked about this told me that it was ‘normal.’ Normal? Give me a break. In both cases, I needed a valuable schoolweek of rest, and still never recovered completely. My energy level and stress levels were affected until well past the end of semester.

I was reminded again of the unhealthy pace of MIT life when I was at a friend’s house for Easter over Patriots’ Day Weekend. Everybody (but me) in the house was asleep by midnight, slept well and was awake by 8 a.m. They didn’t seem to have any less energy than I did, and they all attended 10 a.m. Easter Mass. Meanwhile, I felt like a troglodyte all weekend.

Didn’t they need the deep late night discussions about whether bacteria have karma? Or early morning General Gao’s from Nanling? How could they live without this stuff?

If every article has to have a moral, then here is the meat of this message: Take care of your body. With five weeks left in the semester, recognize that you are more likely than ever to drive you body beyond its limits. Perform no unhealthy experiments with sugar, Mountain Dew, Coke, coffee, Jolt or No-Doz pills. They really are unnecessary and self-defeating, and the lack of sleep will affect you for longer than you imagine.

For those who have serious problems, communicate! Talk to your friends, your TA, your adviser, Nightline, the Med Center, or the Counseling Deans. There are resources that will help you fix the problems rather than hurt yourself.

Arjun R. Narayanswamy is a member of the Class of 2002.