The Neuroscience of Sleep
Issue 1

From time to time the staff at Student Support thinks of how we can support students in broader ways and make a difference in their wellbeing, practice, and precious time at college. We have talked about all sorts of ideas from sessions on mindfulness to welfare dogs (but who looks after them and who cleans up?) We have also looked at creating communication channels for the college community (like an internal social media site helping students to connect on the basis of interests, obsessions etc).
But the topic that keeps coming back is sleep. There are so many books, videos, hacks, and articles that it’s hard to know where to start. Having consumed lots of
this material, one piece that stuck a particular chord with me was by Russell Foster, a neuroscientist from Oxford.
He wrote a brilliant piece in the Times Higher Education Supplement a couple of years ago. It was a response to a simple question to academics of several disciplines: what would you do if you ran a university for a day? His research got everyone thinking about the importance
of sleep in terms of university timetables and specialist support. Foster explained in surprising terms how a good night’s rest forms the crucial platform for our cognitive capacity and our overall health and wellbeing. From his Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, Foster further explained that scientists are still unsure
about the exact purpose of sleep but estimate that brain processing, consolidation, and restoration are key factors. It is certain that poor or inadequate sleep can affect creativity
and memory; and cause impulsiveness, increased stress, weight gain, and cravings for carbs and stimulants (which, in turn, mess with your routine). He also highlighted how disruptive alcohol is to slumber. It may help us snooze but completely wrecks the NREM-REM cycles and brain activity
responsible for restful repose. It gets worse. Insufficient sleep can also lead to cancer, dementia, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and mental ill health. Some grim data on its relationship with early death exists too. In earlier times, poor sleep was seen as a consequence of psychological disorders; but emerging studies suggest that it could be implicated as the cause. For example, a high proportion of people being treated for depression report longstanding problems with slumber
before the onset of their illness. A recent article in the Guardian by another neuroscientist, Matthew Walker, provides some unsettling information about the wider risks to health. Walker is convinced that we are collectively experiencing a sleep-loss epidemic and that the consequences
are far graver than any of us could imagine. He argues that addressing sleep issues should be a major health priority. Another problem is our attitude toward sleep deficiency. Some, in public life, almost brag about needing just four to five hours of shut-eye – which is not
enough according to Foster – and how they are too busy for something so ‘unproductive’. Certain professional cultures also foster the idea that it is feeble to prioritise sleep when you can easily keep caffeine coming to work
into the small hours.

My personal struggles with this subject fluctuate – and sometimes leave me identifying with Al Pacino in Insomnia. My current favourite fixes include standard measures like white noise and slightly new-age deliberate thinking about pleasant experiences from earlier that day. It has to amount to at least ten experiences so you get past the really obvious ones and then find yourself
tired of conjuring increasingly small and obscure, but nonetheless pleasurable details. Other tactics include ones from a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) book by Ad Kerkhof called Stop Worrying. It’s an offbeat book for a professor of clinical psychology. When you’re ruminating in vain, he has a catchphrase for self-talk: Not now, but later. It links with his other recommendation, which is to set aside a specific time for serious worrying. And when you’re doing this, at the end of each worry, you hit an imaginary bell and say: Next please! Kerkhof also offers another technique, probably stolen from Bruce Lee. When you are lying awake fretting, write down your troubles and shove them in a shoebox under the bed. And you can revisit them the next day, during your appointed worry time. (That’s safer than the Bruce
Lee approach, which allegedly involved setting fire to the worries and watching them burn!).

Back to Foster: we may not be able to rejig class calendars any time soon but it would be helpful to spotlight sleep
and get a discussion going. Perhaps, students and staff could share their tricks for dosing and we could make
these available to all on the Intranet or through posters.

Get in touch if you have any ideas,
stories or projects you would like to discuss:

john.gallally@rca.ac.uk


          John Gallally

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