As those of you who have read through this month's installment of Mr. Wizard already know, I recently completed an eight week experiment in which I charted my bizarre sleeping habits (the chart is shown at left). I wanted to see if there were any obvious patterns that could help me gain better control over my waking life.
I printed a sleep chart and every morning I tried to record as accurately as possible when I fell asleep and when I woke up. My first discovery was that my sleeping pattern was even more erratic than I thought it would be. In general I tend to stay up into the wee hours of the morning and then sleep half of the day away, and around Canyon Creek I have the reputation of being something of a vampire. But the actual sleeping and waking times varied dramatically from night to night and so the chart resembles an EEG tracing of a grand mal seizure. Part of the reason for this seems to be that the early birds of the world are forever disrupting my schedule. I also sometimes get on a roll and stay up right through the night, only to pay for it later.
Another surprising discovery was that on average I sleep about seven and a half hours a night. I've always thought of myself as a heavy sleeper, but this amount puts me smack dab in the center of the bell curve. I don't sleep more than other people, just later. Other than that, I could find no obvious patterns (I was hoping to find a constant progression or maybe some kind of monthly rhythm).
By strange coincidence, I received a book on sleep research just after completing my chart and the last few issues of Science News have also included articles on sleep research. As the book points out, we have learned more about sleep and dreaming in the last sixty years than in the previous six thousand. The following snippet from a Science News article caught my attention:
"...people with a slow-running biological clock often cannot fall asleep before 2 a.m. and then labor to stay awake and alert throughout the morning. This condition, known as delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS), often leads to abuse of caffeine and other stimulants upon waking and tranquilizers and alcohol in the nightly struggle to doze off.
"Bright lights appear the best tonic for DSPS, reports Jean R. Joseph-Vanderpool of NIMH. He, Rosenthal and their co-workers advanced the circadian rhythms of 20 people with DSPS by having them sit in front of a bright-light screen for two hours every morning and then wear dark goggles for two hours just before dusk. After two weeks, participants fell asleep an average of two hours earlier and were substantially more alert in the morning. When the same group was exposed to dim light in the morning and wore clear goggles in the late afternoon, they fell asleep an average of one hour earlier than before treatment and did not experience the heightened morning alertness reported after bright-light treatment.
"The volunteers, most of whom were in their early 30s, had grappled unsuccessfully with DSPS for more than half their lives. When contacted six months after the study, nearly all had purchased a bright-light screen and found it effective when used every morning.
"This problem is often perceived as laziness in the morning and willfullness at night, particularly by the parents of teenagers with DSPS," Rosenthal remarks. The prevalence of DSPS is unknown, but the condition appears most often during adolescence and young adulthood, when the circadian pacemaker is considerably slower than it is later in life, he notes."
All this stuff with bright lights makes more sense when you understand that sleep is controlled by the interaction of several "clocks" in the brain and that at least one of these clocks is "calibrated" by sunlight. A small wiring change in the Hypothalmus could be responsible for this DSPS stuff.
My own problems seem to match this description fairly well. My sleep habits have had a fairly potent impact on my life, causing some discord in my relationships and steering me away from 9-to-5 jobs. The few times I have had such jobs were pure misery before about 11 am. And over the last decade I have gained a reputation as a recluse, a coach potato, and a vampire (quite a combination!). Wouldn't it be something if it was my hypothalmus all along!