Snooze or lose: Harvard tells students to sleep more to excel
University designs course to teach undergraduates about the perils of sleep deprivation
All Harvard undergraduates are taking part in a pioneering course on sleep before they arrive on campus, in a bid to combat the growing culture of pulling caffeine-fuelled all-nighters.
Professor Charles Czeisler, a sleep expert at Harvard Medical School, designed the course, which he believes is the first of its kind in the US. Despite being academically gifted, he found students at the world’s top university are often clueless when it comes to the very basics of looking after themselves.
Czeisler was inspired to start the course after giving a talk on the effect of sleep deprivation on learning. “At the end of it one girl came up to me and said: ‘Why am I only being told this now, in my senior year?’ She said no one had ever told her about the importance of sleep, which surprised me.”
The course, rolled out for the first time this year, explains to students how good sleeping habits help academic and athletic performance, and improve general wellbeing.
Paul Barreira, a Harvard psychiatry professor and executive director of the university’s health services, said it was decided to introduce the course amid growing concerns about the effect of sleep deprivation on learning. “A few years ago we carried out a study by putting monitors on students’ wrists. We found they were seriously sleep deprived during the week, and attempting to catch up at weekends – which wasn’t a good way of behaving.”
The course, which Czeisler said takes about an hour to complete, involves a series of interactive tasks. In one section there is an image of a dorm room where students click on coffee cups, curtains, trainers and books to be told about the effects of caffeine and light, how athletic performance is affected by sleep deficiency, and the importance of bedtime routines. In another section they are told how long-term sleep deprivation can increase risks of heart attacks, stroke, depression and cancer.
“We know it won’t change students’ behaviour instantly,” said Czeisler. “But we believe they have a right to know, just as you have a right to know the health effects of choosing to smoke cigarettes.”
The culture of pride in “pulling an all-nighter” still existed, he said, adding that technology and ever-increasing pressure on students meant sleep deprivation was a growing problem.
Ensuring you have enough sleep of a good quality should be a student’s “secret weapon” to combat stress, exhaustion and anxiety, he said – even to avoid putting on weight, since sleep deprivation puts the brain into starvation mode, making you constantly hungry.
Raymond So, a 19-year-old Californian studying chemical and physical biology, helped Czeisler design the course, having taken one of his classes last year during his first year at Harvard. The course had “opened my eyes” and inspired him to push for a campus-wide course. The next step, he hopes, it to ask all postgraduates to complete a similar study programme before joining the university.
“It’s such a competitive institution, you think that you need to deprive yourself of sleep to work around the clock and get ahead of the curve,” he said. “But actually, if you sleep more, you perform better.”
Czeisler recommended that students set an alarm for when to go to bed, and for when to wake, and be aware of the harmful effects of “blue light” emitted by electronic screens and LED lighting, which can throw your circadian rhythm out of kilter, leading to problems falling asleep.
– © The Sunday Telegraph