My junior year of high school, I slept so little that I started imagining I could see knee-high slugs drifting across campus. They glided between buildings, staring blandly ahead with eyes perched on fragile stalks. They slid down walls. I don’t recall one ever blinking.
These were not hallucinations. I chose to imagine them. Some exhausted part of me conjured them up, as if to warn the rest of me, "What you are doing is not right." Why slugs? Perhaps because I felt like one: dazed, distant and slow to react.
That year I began sleeping between four and seven hours a night, a routine I’ve more or less maintained ever since. I like to think Northwestern girded my body for continual sleepless plunges through the night. But sleep experts don't agree with me. So, looking back from the vantage of senior year, I find myself tapping my head and wondering why I did it.
Of course, I'm not an unusual case. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University surveyed the sleep habits of Midwestern college students several years ago. "College students reported chronically restricted sleep," they wrote in the Journal of Adolescent Health . How restricted? The mean sleep time was seven hours a night. One quarter of respondents reported sleeping less than six-and-a-half hours each night.
Universities have tried gently to coax students to bed for longer hours. Just a quick example: Stanford, Villanova and Northern Arizona University wag fingers online at sleep-deprived studentry. Yet these admonitions are so buried on university websites that it's probably a crapshoot whether any students stumble upon them, let alone obey them.
This is all bad news for our hearts and hormones, says Phyllis Zee, director of the Circadian Rhythms and Sleep Research Laboratory at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. She says forgoing sleep can increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
But we're young — we can weather the weekly all-nighter, right? Not so, according to Zee. "You may recover a little faster," she tells me, "but the long-term consequences are still there."
And as for short-term consequences, Zee points me to the work of Eve Van Cauter at the University of Chicago. In the 1990s, Van Cauter and her colleagues enlisted 11 young men to spend 16 nights in a lab, sleeping for varying amounts of time. Researchers tested the men's blood and saliva. Van Cauter and her team found that the men had more difficulty regulating blood sugar after sleeping only four hours.
"Less than 1 week of sleep curtailment in healthy young people is associated with striking alterations in metabolic and endocrine function," they wrote in The Lancet in 1999.
Association isn't the same as causation, but the study still might make a rational person reconsider pulling continual all-nighters. Yet college students like me recklessly skip out on sleep.
I often worked deep into the wee hours as editor-in-chief of this publication. On several nights in 2010, I dozed a few hours on couches outside the NBN newsroom before dashing to 8 a.m. class. For breakfast, I ate Pop Tarts and gulped energy drinks.
My hands trembled in the morning. My heart raced. I fought off sleep in class. I thought this was the burden of NBN’s boss, as if physical stress were the badge of Very Important People.
Perhaps I want to believe that the road to greatness is paved with nights spent working. The idea is timeless, vigorous, stoic. Heck, Marcus Aurelius scorned shuteye. From his Meditations:
"When thou art hard to be stirred up and awaked out of thy sleep, admonish thyself and call to mind, that, to perform actions tending to the common good is that which thine own proper constitution, and that which the nature of man do require."
We've even glorified sleep deprivation in this very magazine.
And for those of us who lurch from deadline to deadline, it is tempting to ditch sleep in order to perfect the next project. Take the example of Robert Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of Books. I admire his seemingly tireless zeal for craft:
"Mr. Silvers is a legendary workaholic who, putting out 20 issues a year, gets by on very little sleep and sometimes spends the night in the office, " Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times. "His assistants work staggered shifts to accommodate his long workday."
It is foolish and wrong, of course, to pretend that I work through the night because I can't stop producing wonders. Sure, people do strange things for good reasons. But they also do strange things for conflicting reasons, or for the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all.
Sometimes we stay up because we spent the day spelunking the Internet and lollygagging with friends. To drop into bed with work unfinished would be to admit defeat, to admit mortality.
And sometimes we stay up because — with every moment scheduled or spent, with our futures nestled in the hands of faraway human resource managers — it is comforting to wield power over our own bedtime. Sometimes we stay up because we can, or because we feel we should, though we can't explain why.
"We're so used to being sleep deprived that we think it's normal," Zee says.
Just weeks from graduation, it's too late for me to change the story of my sleepless college years. I've made my choice and I'll take my licks.
What's left over are the serendipitous moments I stumbled into long past midnight. The wordless rapport built with the janitors who clean McTrib when the students have all gone home. The morning light that splashes on the cold grays and blues of the NBN newsroom. It's a beautiful sight. It wakes you up and urges you on.