The Science of Sleep (and the Art of Productivity) | Dr. Matthew Carter | TEDxNorthAdams

Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs I’d like to start by asking you to imagine yourself
in the following scenario: you are a high school senior,
or the parent of a high school senior, and you’re interested
in a potential college, and so you arrange for a campus visit. And you go on a campus tour
and everything looks great, and the people are friendly, but after a few minutes,
something strange starts to dawn on you: that this campus has
a really horrible smoking habit. Everybody you see is smoking outside,
everybody smells like cigarette smoke. In fact, you go to have lunch
in a dining hall and students are actually bragging
about how much they smoke. One student says, “Yesterday,
I smoked three packs all by myself!” And another student says,
“Nice! I did that last week. High five!” And you think to yourself,
“Well, this is pretty strange. This is an otherwise great school, but they have sort of a weird bad habit,
and they’re oddly celebrational about it. So I’m not sure I want to go here.” So imagine you go on a second campus tour and you look at a second college
and it’s very similar to the first: the campus looks really beautiful,
people are friendly – Except this college
has a bad junk food habit. Everybody you see is eating junk food,
there’s junk food wrappers everywhere, there’s nothing nutritious
to eat in the dining hall. And again, people are bragging
about how much they’re eating. So, one student says, “Last night,
I had a whole pizza by myself.” And another student says, “Nice! I did the same thing
last week. High five!” So, if these two scenarios
sound a little far-fetched, imagine a third scenario
as you go visit another college. And again, it looks really great,
the people are friendly, except that at this college,
everybody looks tired. You see people falling asleep
at their computers. You visit a class and people
are dozing off in class, and it just generally looks like
everyone could use a great nap, right? So, what’s crazy to me about this is that I’ve never seen a campus
full of people who are all smokers, or a campus full of people
who are all sleep-deprived, but a campus full
of people look tired and – or, sorry, a campus full of people
who all eat junk food, but a campus full of people
who are all sleep-deprived and tired describes every college and university
I think that I’ve ever seen, and actually most high schools as well, especially during later parts
of the semester. What’s interesting is that the effects
of being sleep-deprived all the time can be just as bad as smoking and just as bad as eating
too much junk food, and yet lots of students would actually
choose to go to a college where everyone looks sleep-deprived because it looks like
it’s a really hard-working college, where people are very productive
and achieving great things. And so, as a sleep researcher, I’ve been fascinated by the biology
and neuroscience of sleep for over a decade, and I have a lab at Williams College
that studies mice. We look at what happens in the brain
and the body during sleep. We look at how the neurons
in the brain control sleep. But I have to say,
as a father, as a teacher, and as a colleague
to a lot of hard-working colleagues, hard-working people, I have a new-found fascination for how we tolerate
sleep deprivation as a society. And it’s not just students in our schools.
It’s really everywhere. Whenever a ride public transportation,
whether it’s a bus or a subway, I see people who just look exhausted. And in fact, you can see
people taking naps on their morning or afternoon commute and sneak them in. In our public life, it’s really not
uncommon to see people dozing off, and in general, in our public
and professional lives, people really just look exhausted. But something is even crazier
than that to me, which is that not only
are people exhausted, but some people choose
to be sleep-deprived and some people actually wear it
as a badge of honor, right? Because in order to be sleep-deprived,
you must be really hard-working, you must have a lot
of important things to do, and you must be very, very productive, or else why would you be
sleep-deprived in the first place? I’ve actually been a part
of job committees where job applicants
will brag about the fact that they only get three
or four hours of sleep a night. And actually, just a couple of months ago,
I was looking at Facebook, and one of these memes that somehow
just shows up in your feed for no reason, I read it – it had tens
of thousands of likes, and it said, “No one looks
back on their life and remembers the nights
they had plenty of sleep,” the implication being
that if get plenty of sleep, you’re somehow missing out
on your life’s greatest potential and in all the things
that you could be doing. And so, this is really interesting to me, and I wonder, actually, if people would brag about the fact
that they’re not getting enough sleep if they knew that the health
benefits of getting sleep were just as important
as the benefits of not smoking or the benefits of eating good nutrition
and not eating junk food. Sleep scientists have made so many
great discoveries over the past 10 years, and I’m surprised that more people
don’t know about them. So here’s just a couple examples, and you’ll have to excuse me
because I’m a biology professor. So when you’re sleeping, your pituitary gland,
which is right below your brain, surges its production of growth hormone. Growth hormone is released much more when you’re sleeping
than when you’re awake, and growth hormone
essentially causes three effects: muscle growth, bone growth
and fat metabolism. How many people would take a pill that caused muscle growth,
bone growth and fat metabolism? If there was a company
that sold this pill, they’d make billions of dollars, and I imagine most consumers
would pay a lot for this. And yet, we get it for free
when we’re sleeping. And it’s always odd to me when I see
people working out at the gym, and they spend hours a day at the gym and then they say they don’t get
enough sleep at night. It’s kind of a funny ting to me: you know your muscles aren’t actually
growing when you’re working out, or you’re not losing weight. That all happens when you’re sleeping,
and I don’t think most people know that. Here’s another example: the cells and the biochemistry – the biochemicals that make up
your immune system and circulate through your blood stream, they actually change when you’re sleeping
compared to when you’re awake. And when you’re sleeping, they’re particularly good
at seeking out viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms to stop infection and disease. And this is why,
when you don’t get enough sleep, you’re much more prone to getting sick, and that’s why, when you’re sick, the best thing you can do
is to get a good night’s sleep. And so, in addition
to these health benefits of sleep, people who don’t get enough sleep are
at a higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity. Psychologically, people are at a much
higher risk for anxiety and depression. We all know that when you are
sleep-deprived, you lose focus, you lose the ability to pay attention, and it’s been estimated
by the National Sleep Foundation that over $60 billion is lost
in the United States annually just due to unproductive workers,
because they’re so sleep-deprived. And all of this is really important, but I think it also ignores
something that we all know, everybody in this room knows to be true, which is that it really sucks
to be sleep-deprived, right? It feels so awful to be sleep-deprived
and try to keep your eyelids open. They’re all of the sudden so heavy. You do things, like, when you’re a speaker
at an event like this, where you do that headbob thing, you’re trying to keep your head awake
and fall asleep for a second, and some distant part of your brain
is like, “Not now! Not now!” You’re trying to keep yourself awake. And I know this
just as well as anyone else. This is the worst picture
of me ever taken. (Laughter) It’s also the most ironic picture
of me ever taken, because I was so tired I fell asleep
in the middle of the day because I had spent the entire night working on a talk
about the benefits of sleep. So – I did not do that last night. So, I know this just as well
as everybody else, and it’s just really awful
to be sleep-deprived, but here’s where there’s good news, because the good news
is that the opposite is also true, the opposite being that people
who are chronically sleep-deprived, when they develop habits to get a regular
amount of sleep every single day, they all of the sudden feel
like years have been taken off their life. They’re suddenly alive, and awake, and have the energy of someone
much younger, and they just feel great, and they wonder why
they didn’t do it before. But there’s also a lot
of sleep science to back this up. One of my colleagues ran lots of studies on varsity athletes
at Stanford University. And she recruited
varsity athletes for sleep studies in which they were essentially forced to get a good night’s sleep
over several weeks. And what she found was that compared to players
who didn’t take part in this sleep study, everything about these athletes
who slept in improved: their speed improved,
their strength improved, the number of mistakes
and errors they made went way down, their chances of getting
a concussion went way down, and they were generally
much better at the sport. The same thing happens in the classroom. When students were recruited
for sleep studies where they get much more sleep, their creativity increases,
their problem-solving increases, their test scores increase
and their grades increase. And so, it just seems
that everything gets much better once someone declares themselves that they’re going to get
a good night of sleep every single night, very consistently. And the greatest paradox in this, I think, is that the people
who don’t get enough sleep because they’d like
to accomplish more during the day actually find that they’re more productive
when they get more sleep, and not less productive, because even though
they’re not awake as long, they’re much more productive
when they’ve gotten enough sleep. There’s lots of measured studies on this, that you’re actually able to get more done
when you get a good night’s sleep, not less. So, why are we so bad at this? If this is all true, then why, as a society,
are we not good at this? And this is actually where I feel like the analogy between sleep deprivation,
junk food and smoking goes down. It’s because when people smoke
or have junk food, they’re doing it
for the short-term reward. It’s immediately satisfying
when people choose to do those things. But there’s nothing satisfying
about sleep deprivation, like we’ve already talked about. So why do people do it? And I ask my colleagues this,
I survey students all the time, and the same three answers come up
again and again and again. One, we have busy lives
and we’d like to get more done. Two, we’re stressed. Stress and anxiety
keeps us awake sometimes, and there’s lots of stressors in our life. And three – and this is a very new trend – is that we’re addicted
to our gadgets at night. We love looking at our smartphones,
tablets, computers, and there’s all sorts of apps now that just occupy our time
before we go to bed. There’s email, Facebook,
Twitter, Instagram, not to mention YouTube, Netflix, and a long list of great
TED Talks that we can see. So what do we do about all of this? And this is where
I actually get some insight from the mice that we study in our lab, because it actually turns out
that all animals need sleep, all animals get the same benefit
of sleep that humans do, but it’s amazingly easy
to keep a mouse awake. To sleep-deprive a mouse,
you don’t really have to do very much. If you want to stress out
a mouse a little bit, you can give him a new roommate. Giving him a new roommate
will keep him awake for a little while. Or you can move him to a different cage
that he’s not used to, and the stress of going to a new home
will keep him awake hours past his bedtime. You might ask,
“What is the mouse equivalent of watching YouTube
or being addicted to email?” And it turns out we can
duplicate this as well with something as putting
a paper towel in a mouse’s cage – We wad up a paper towel,
give it to the mouse, the mouse is entertained
by this for hours. It’ll explore the contours
of the paper towel, it’ll kick it around, it’ll play with it, and again, it’ll stay up
hours past its bedtime. So, the take-home point
from this, I think, is that we’re hardwired to need sleep, but we’re also hardwired
to be sleep-deprived at a moment’s notice based on stressful things and exciting things
happening in our lives. And it actually turns out when the mouse
is playing with the paper towel, a surge of dopamine
is being released in its brain. And the same thing happens
when we scroll on a smartphone. Every time you swipe up
on a Facebook post or an email or anything else, we actually get a little surge
of dopamine in our brains, and that surge of dopamine keeps us awake. So, what do we do about all of this, especially when we have a life that’s much more complicated
than that of a mouse? You know, a paper towel
is bad enough for a mouse, but we have all these nice gadgets now
that we didn’t have ten years ago to immediately give us all these things. So it’s here where I feel
like I have three ideas worth spreading, and the first idea is that we need to just
completely embrace sleep as a culture. We need to treat this as healthy, and no job applicant should brag about
only getting three or four hours of sleep, no student should high-five
another student in the dining hall for pulling an all-nighter, and in general, we should just be
much more sleep-conscious as a society. I actually went to a doctor
a couple of weeks ago, and when I showed up
at the doctor’s office, I had to check a little form
about the healthy habits in my life. And there was a long list
and it was things like, “Do I have a smoke detector in my home?”, “Do I wear my seat belt?”,
“Do take a daily vitamin?” I thought this was a great list, but nowhere on the list was,
“Do I get 6 to 8 hours of sleep a night?” And I thought that it was very odd. We need to treat sleep as a health issue, just as much as smoking, or just as much
as eating a balanced diet. Number two is we need
to relearn how to go to bed. It’s amazing – You know who the best sleepers are
in American society? It’s actually our kids, which is funny because it takes a while
to get them to sleep. But once they’re asleep,
they actually sleep very soundly, and they have a nice quantity
and quality of sleep. And I think that that’s because we take
the time to put them to bed properly. We brush their teeth,
we give them some water, we change their clothes
into their pajamas, we dim the lights, we read them a story, and this whole 30-minute,
40-minute process really prepares them
for a great night of sleep. And they sleep very soundly
once they finally go to sleep. Can you imagine what it would be like to put our kids to sleep the same way
that we put ourselves to sleep? If we gave our kids
bright screens and said, “Play whatever you want
for 30 minutes” – but maybe it’ll turn it in two hours – our kids would never sleep, and this would be really detrimental. And so we need to out ourselves to bed
essentially the same way. We need to just remember
what we did when we were six years old. And I think that this gets lost
sometime around high school. We don’t, as parents,
put our high schoolers to bed. And somewhere around the elementary
school ages to high school ages, people forget how to go to bed, and we just magically assume
that we’ll fall asleep after being worried
and playing with our gadgets. And so we need to dim the lights, to develop a nice habit,
a nice night-time routine, and we need to take anything
that has a screen on it and push it away 30 or 45 minutes
before we go to bed and try not to look at it
until we wake up the next morning. Finally, kids are the best sleepers, but if you ask adults who are the best
sleepers out of the adult community, what people find is that the best sleepers are the ones who embrace
good wake habits as well. People who have good time management
and productivity skills actually sleep better at night because they have
such a well-balanced day. And there are so many books written on the topic of productivity
and time management, and lots of tips you can find online, but I tell students this can be something as easy as just knowing if you are
a morning person or a night person, what time of day are you most productive and do your best work
during that time of day, what time of day are you least productive and do the mindless tasks that you just
need to get done at that time of day – ask where you work best,
how you work best – even just by asking students
these kinds of questions, they discover the answers for themselves,
and every one is different. Because really,
you get a good night’s sleep not because sleep is fun, but because if you get
a good night’s sleep, it makes you have a better day’s wake, it makes you more productive,
more time-efficient, and you get more done. But it’s reciprocal. If you have a better day’s wake and you get more done
and you’re more productive, it actually causes you
to have a better night’s sleep. And this is sort of a reinforcing cycle
and it works really great. And I’m a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t figure out these techniques
into years in my life. I started studying sleep before I realized
these good night’s sleep habits and these great productivity habits. And when I think about that, I actually kind of get
a little frustrated, because when I was in school, I had sex education, nutrition education, drug awareness-resistance education, but no one ever told me how to go to bed and no one ever told me how I could get
more done during the day. These are things
I just picked up on my own. And I think these are so valuable things that we could actually be teaching
high school kids and college kids. And so just recently,
at Williams College, we actually taught our first course called The Science of Sleep
and the Art of Productivity, and I was really afraid
that no one would sign up for this class. And in the end, it turned out
people were hungry for it. College students overenrolled in the class and we wound up
letting a lot more people in than we initially intended. But it was amazing. They loved learning about sleep habits, they loved talking about how they could
get more done during the day, and it worked out really well. And now what we’re trying to do
is take these messages and spread them across our campus
and the community, to try to embrace a culture of sleep
that everyone is proud of. Because it’s really true: no one looks back on their life and remembers the nights
they had plenty of sleep. This is true. But the opposite is also true: nobody looks back on their life and remembers the times
they were exhausted, right? And I hate this picture of me, but the funny thing about this day is I don’t remember
a single thing about this day. The only reason I remember this
is because a picture was taken of me. I remember the times
I was awake and alert, and I had a life of good
experiences when I was awake, not when I was exhausted. And I choose to optimize those times now. I choose to try to be awake
as much as I can so I can enjoy those great experiences
with my family and with my friends. So I think the take-home message
is to get a good night’s sleep not because it’s fun, but because it makes you
so much happier during the day. And this is what I wish for all of you. I wish that everybody
has a good night’s sleep for a better day’s wake, and a better day’s wake
for a good night’s sleep. Thank you. (Applause)


  • TheQsanity

    Great talk but young adults are biologically wired to sleep later at night than older adults. So maybe it was the new information about sleep that caused you to sleep earlier or a combination of that and being older and being able to more easily sleep earlier

  • Rhomez

    ME: Finally I finished watching this video.

    YAS: That's GREAT. I did that a year ago.

  • Slam_24

    I’m split; some professionals are saying sleep is important and you should get 6-8 hours of sleep and wake up nice and early as a teenager. Others are saying; teenagers should get as much sleep in the morning as possible. Is waking up early actually good for you?

  • quoc huynh

    I'd better spend time on ASMR.

  • Tips & Hacks Corner by Sara

    Good information. Thanks.

  • Poop In the Pee

    so basically being awake is death. got it. ted talks ftw

  • Andrew Rice

    When I remove all phones, tablets, etc from my bedroom, immediately I sleep better and my sleep is on track. No other effort required, except continuing to keep the gadgets out…

  • Aarti Singh

    Thanks a lottttttttttttttttttttttttt for ur really really important and precious talk Dr. Matthew Carter…..
    As being a student , it's something ( Sleep Deprivation) that's the actual problem of our lifestyle …So thanks for ur guidance and practical analysis..

  • Known stranger

    who is watching without sleeping and awaking late at night?

  • Known stranger

    who is watching without sleeping and awaking late at night

  • Esther

    Yes! Great talk.

  • IW Nunn

    I have some professionally undiagnosed neurological problem. I'm constantly in a dream state when I sleep. The dream switch won't shut off. I'm talking very vivid dreams. I wake up exhausted.


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